Director Riley Stearns’s duplicitous “Dual” is a deceptively disarming droll deposition delving into diacritic distinction. [Sundance Film Festival]

Last at Sundance with his short The Cub (2013), writer/director Riley Stearns is back and brought his new feature film Dual which is, at a glance, a science fiction film in which a woman faced with losing her life must come to terms with what her life was before she can take it back. If that’s all it were, especially with Karen Gillan (Avengers: Endgame) in the lead role, that would be enough for audiences to pay their fare and enjoy the ride. Except Dual is so much more. From its name, a homonym with “duel,” to the meticulous way it executes its narrative, Dual isn’t so much a set-up for violence, but for introspection of one’s own life and whether it’s a life worth fighting to keep. Like a modern Twilight Zone episode, Dual discretely lures the audience in and then slow burns its way to a dazzlingly brutal finish.

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L-R: Aaron Paula as Trent and Karen Gillan as Sarah in DUAL by Riley Stearns, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Sarah (Gillan) is apathetic about her life, prone to ingesting large quantities of food alone, over-drinking, and generally lacking in self-care. How much of this is her complicated relationship with her mother (Maija Paunio) or that with her boyfriend Peter (Beulah Koale) who seems emotionally distant is hard to say, but she gets a wake-up call when she’s diagnosed with an incurable disease that’s going to kill her and soon.  In an attempt to make things easier, she decides to have a clone made so that her mother won’t know she’s gone and, perhaps, things might be easier on Peter. Problem is, Sarah gets better and her clone doesn’t want to go. The only solution by law is a dual to the death to decide who gets Sarah’s life: the original or the clone.

Before the film even starts, the fact that the one of the distributor tags shown is XYZ Films is indicator enough that what follows is going to be a little absurd, a little dark, and largely unexpected. This is the same group that worked with Panos Cosmatos’s phantasmagorical Mandy (2018), Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson’s time-bending drama Synchronic (2020), Sion Sono’s apocalyptic western Prisoners of the Ghostland (2021), and Eric McEver’s tokusatsu comedy Iké Boys (2021). Each one of these films pushes the bounds of cinematic storytelling by luring in audiences with narratives seemingly crafted on the well-worn bones of genre pieces of the past before unveiling some kind of beautiful secret within. Such is the case with Stearns’s Dual, a film which really only hits you once the final moment is upon you with all the work of the script, all the emotions of the performances, all the nuances of themes coalescing as one, slamming into you until you’re doubled over with shock, pain, or dark glee. There’s always more than one acceptable response to any film, yet Dual almost requires a multitude of responses as the film slowly skewers expectations. Though, to a degree, this is unsurprising as the script subverts expectations at virtually every opportunity without sacrificing an ounce of authenticity in the process.

The most obvious thing about Dual is the play on words of the title in relation to the concept. It’s the most obvious thing and, also, the easiest to examine without giving away anything significant that might ruin an initial viewing. The name itself refers to a double object, in this case an original and her clone, who come to opposing views. It’s also, as mentioned, a homonym for the word “duel,” referring to a fight, typically to the death or where someone yields. The notion of fighting your clone should be outlandish unto itself, yet Stearns has crafted a world that’s roughly a decade into using clones in this manner and society has made them fairly commonplace. So much so that there’s an amendment (the 28th) to guide their function and a television show to present the conflict. Like Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You (2018) and the commonplace nature of its prison system-like WorryFree job/housing program and the stardom that awaits participants in its fictional I Got the Shit Kicked Out of Me game show, both of which were treated as regular aspects of everyday life, the clones and their acceptance into the world are treated by this film as equally common. By skipping over any potential protest portion and focusing on their actual integration into society, you’d think that Stearns is shortcutting his way through the problematic elements, or philosophical ones, when he’s actually doing so via subtext while at the forefront he drills down into notions of life as a valuable thing and the dual nature of life as a prison. Especially when Stearns drops the tidbit that clones, referred to as doubles, aren’t allowed clones of their own, the once considered finality of life that’s broken by the entrance of cloning is once more mended. For a clone to take over the life of the original requires them to understand that the life they take is the life they are stuck with. Then there’s the violence the audience expects given the conflict running through the narrative. Outside of the opening sequence which sets up the kind of world in which a duel to the death is acceptable, all the rest of the violence we see is either implied or a false depiction of violence (a character watching a movie). Otherwise, what Stearns shows us is how characters react to violence, itself far more important to the character-driven narrative than whether or not we get to see Gillan throw down with herself. (I mean, sure, we’d like to see that, but Dual is all about the exploration of getting what you want, so be careful what you wish for.)

As a character piece, it’s important to spend a bit of time, at least, addressing Gillan’s performance. Personally, I’d love to hear from Stearns and Gillan as to whether the character of Sarah is intended to be lifeless as a result of her dissociation from life (going through the motions) or if it’s how she’s always been. Gillan’s performance never really changes in terms of vocal inflection or body language, implying that this awkward person is who Sarah has always been. Being this way certainly makes the clone appear more “other” than normal, but even it doesn’t seem to truly come “alive” from what we see, either. Truthfully, whatever the answer, it doesn’t matter so much how she changed outwardly (if at all), but how Sarah changes inwardly in terms of confidence and control. Gillan may not enthrall viewers as she has via hilarious performances in both recent Jumanji films or be quite so barbaric as she is in the MCU, but this is a quieter role that makes strong use of her talents as a physical performer conveying multitudes of emotion and meaning via simple body positioning, expressions, and tonal delivery. Without question, Dual fascinates on the script-level, but Gillan makes it wholly gripping throughout.

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Karen Gillan as Sarah in DUAL by Riley Stearns, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Photo Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

There comes a moment in Dual where Chekhov’s Gun appears and, in that moment, I worried for the fate of the film. One problem with being analytical is that my brain tries to figure things out as they go, something which happened in this moment and I spent a bit of time having to force myself to quiet down and focus. But, upon the tempered conclusion of Dual I came to realize that whether I or any other audience member notices The Gun or not, it makes no difference on the impact of the film’s climax. Stearns has the film loaded from the opening scene and, with that in mind, it wasn’t just a matter of when the gun would be fired, but what the fallout looked like. That’s the part of Dual that lingers. That question of what comes next. What that looks like in a society where life goes on after your death and whether or not your life remains your own post-death. Grim though it may be, it makes me giggle just to think about it.

Screening during the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.

For more information, head to the official Dual Sundance film page or the XYZ Films website.

Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.

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