This review was originally written in conjunction with Dual’s release at the 2022 Sundance International Film Festival.
Over the course of three widely spaced feature films — Faults, The Art of Self-Defense, and the new Dual — writer-director Riley Stearns has slowly revealed himself as a filmmaker focused on confrontation, but only when it’s couched in the quietest and most intense terms. There isn’t a lot of yelling or fighting in his films. But the simmering desire to yell and fight is always right below the surface for his single-minded characters. They clearly weren’t made for violence, but they often wish they were — or pretend they are. Everyone in these films seems overwhelmed by the conflicts that have seized them, and everybody’s trying to figure out how to win, but nobody wants to be rude about it.
In Dual, that dynamic comes with science fiction elements for the first time. The opening scene makes it clear that the film’s title, no pun intended, has a dual meaning. In this world, cloning is easy and almost instantaneous, and terminally ill people are encouraged to clone themselves — “So that your loved ones won’t have to suffer the loss of you,” according to one ad. But because clones are meant to take over their progenitors’ identities, if circumstances change and the original cell donor doesn’t die, they have to duel their clone to the death to see which of them gets to continue to exist.
That premise is absurd on a thousand levels, but Stearns leans straight into the absurdity, particularly with that ad for the cloning service, which presents a deadpan scenario where a depressed man clones himself so he can commit suicide in peace without making any of his family members suffer. This kind of brutally caustic humor defines the film. Anyone who can’t see themselves chuckling at least a little bit at the bleak prospect of a new clone calmly coming across his progenitor’s corpse and taking his place would be advised to steer clear.
Stearns channels the absurdism through Sarah (Guardians of the Galaxy’s Karen Gillan), a prickly young woman who’s astonished to learn that she has a fatal illness with no cure, and just a few months to live. The doctor who breaks the news is surprised at Sarah’s calm: “Most people cry when doctors give them bad news, which is why most doctors are depressed,” she tells her patient. But Sarah’s remove is mostly disbelief. She feels fine, apart from the occasional tendency to cough up vast gouts of blood. Nonetheless, she decides to take the clone route. The expense puts her off at first, but the clone counselor she speaks to gives her the Riley Stearns equivalent of a hard sell: the completely straight-faced, flat-voiced statement, “You must understand that this is a gift for your loved ones. Can you put a price on them not having to be sad?”
As it happens, though, not only are her boyfriend and mother not noticeably sad at the news of Sarah’s impending death, they like the clone better than they like her. And when, inevitably, Sarah’s irreversible illness miraculously reverses itself and she realizes she’s going to live, her family shuts her out and embraces the clone instead. Her only hope is to win her public duel against clone-Sarah (also played by Gillan, naturally, in a remarkably smooth Orphan Black-style dual role), which means learning how to fight, while learning how to accept the responsibility of murdering someone who looks exactly like her.
In a moment suddenly packed with multiverse stories exploring alternate narrative roads for familiar stories and bringing different versions of specific characters together, Dual reads oddly like a small-scale version of the same idea, where Sarah has to confront her failures by seeing how successful she might have been if she’d made different choices. But it also fits neatly into the world of horror stories about evil opposites, where a character comes to value their life more when an alternate version of themselves comes along to steal it. The familiar messaging about being grateful for life feels surprisingly sour in Dual, though, given how little warmth or personal support Sarah sees in that life before the clone comes along.
That’s largely due to Dual’s peculiar remove from reality, a form of stylization that’s easily been its most contentious and divisive choice. Stearns coaches his actors to a level of deadpan, rigid-faced delivery that feels inhuman, where nearly every line is a flat declaration that highlights the surrealism in an already-surreal setting. Another movie might reach for the horror and melodrama in Sarah’s impending death and replacement. It might also lean harder on the way her dystopian world seems designed specifically to torment her, with laws that make her financially responsible for supporting the clone that’s supplanting her and plotting to murder her in that heavily foreshadowed state-sanctioned duel. Instead, Stearns presents all of this in the most matter-of-fact way possible, which sometimes makes it harder to empathize with Sarah, or see her as more of a person than her scheming clone.
Stearns employed much of the same tone in The Art of Self-Defense, which has awkward nebbish Casey (Jesse Eisenberg) seeking out martial-arts training from a comedically macho sensei (Alessandro Nivola) after a mugging. That plotline gets a parallel in Dual when Sarah connects with fight trainer Trent (Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul) in hopes of toughening herself up for the duel. In both cases, Stearns mines a lot of extremely dry humor both from the students’ credulity and willingness to go along with anything, and the teachers’ ludicrously specific and unlikely training methods. (Sensei makes Casey stop petting his dog, because it was making him soft; Trent makes Sarah watch gory movies, noting that they aren’t very good, but at least they’re very bloody.) In both cases, part of the comedy in having the actors perform with such fervent sincerity and so little tonal affect is that they never seem to be trying to sell the audience on the reality of their unreal situations and beliefs.
All of which makes Stearns’ movies funnier, but not necessarily more engaging. Art of Self-Defense is more overtly a comedy, mocking the artificial and self-destructive aspects people so often bring to their ideas of masculinity. But Dual is playing with tougher subjects and more sensitive emotions, and the distanced, mannered approach doesn’t always serve the characters well. Viewers may be left trying to inject their own sense of emotional hurt and threat into the story, even though Sarah is openly suffering, and her life is constantly on the line. A single scene where she breaks down in tears in her car — which Gillan plays with heartbreaking conviction — does more to make the character seem human and relatable than just about the entire combined run time of the movie.
And the ending makes it particularly hard to take Dual as even a bleak, macabre comedy. It highlights the film’s cynicism about everything — about the capitalist structures that push Sarah to solve her own mortality by buying something to replace her, about the family and personal relationships that offer her so few options, about the society that considers her replaceable, about the negligible value of the life she’s built for herself. It’s a strange and memorable film with a unique voice and a unique perspective, and that alone makes it worth seeking out. But just as Stearns’ characters seem to be constantly suppressing a shriek of dismay or despair or defiance, viewers may come out of this one suppressing the urge to go yell at Stearns and demand a satisfaction that the movie isn’t about to offer.
Dual opens in theaters on April 15, and will be streaming on AMC Plus and available for digital and on-demand rental on May 20.