If you could clone yourself, would you? For some, the answer is “yes” because their mind goes to all the things that they dislike doing which they could put off on their clone — your errands, your job, maybe the friends or relatives that you don’t have patience for anymore but with whom you still want to keep up appearances. The trick, though, is that most forget that a clone is just you, down to the DNA. They’re not a robot with programming, they are an individual with thoughts, feelings, and needs, just like you. To expect a clone to behave or want as you is criminally unfair. Enter writer/director Riley Stearns with his profound dark comedy Dual, a film which explores the nature of self and identity through the prism of a world where clones are not only accepted but have rights. The caveat is that to acquire a clone, one must be dying, and if you don’t need it anymore, the pair of you must fight to the death for the right to live with the shared identity. Stearns’s Dual was intriguing when it premiered at Sundance 2022 and remains as powerful on home video, courtesy of RLJE Films.
If you’re looking for a spoiler-free explanation of Dual, head to the initial Sundance 2022 spoiler-free review. Moving forward, there will be specific details of the film revealed and explored.
When we meet Sarah (Karen Gillan), she’s spending her days over-eating, over-drinking, pining for her currently out-of-town boyfriend Peter (Beulah Koale), and avoiding calls from her mother (Maija Paunio). Her life is not great and it gets worse when she’s diagnosed with a rare incurable illness. Rather than put her loved ones through the pain of knowing about her upcoming death, she decides to get a clone of herself made with the idea that it’ll hopefully make Peter happier and her mom will never know. At first, Peter is reticent about this when he finds out, but grows to really care for Sarah’s clone and vice versa to the point that Peter breaks up with Sarah to live with Sarah’s clone. Oh, and Sarah’s mother? Not only does she find out about Sarah’s condition, but she learns about the clone and prefers it to the original. To make matters somehow worse, Sarah gets better. By the rule of law, only one Sarah can exist, so a date is set one year into the future when the Sarahs will duel and the winner gets to keep living.
Given the general premise — illness, clones, and a fight for your life — there’s an expectation of violence within Dual, but this film surprises (or disappoints) on this expectation by serving up emotional violence over the physical. Frankly, to have seen Gillan fight herself, while interesting as a concept, is far less exciting as an exploration of identity and self-improvement. When we first meet Sarah, she’s basically despondent. She’s alive, but she’s not living. Not even the diagnosis of a sudden and unknown death causes her to change her patterns or cognitive approach to anything. Rather, she just gets a clone because that seems like the easiest, least messy, thing to do. However, upon seeing Peter and her mother favor the clone, coming to realize that this version of her is “better” than she and that the two will have to fight to the death, *that* gives her the motivation to fight for her life. She exercises, she trains, she transforms her way of thinking so that, if she wins the fight, she’s going to be better than she was at the start. That she doesn’t survive the film speaks to how far Sarah’s come and how much she now trusts herself: the mistake being that past her (made physical by the clone) is not who she is now. While it’s a bummer that she doesn’t survive, the fact that her clone does plus the situation Sarah’s clone then finds herself in is far more poignant, crafting a statement on the kinds of life (and metaphysical prisons) we make for ourselves. The clone presumed that Sarah wouldn’t make any changes, wouldn’t train, wouldn’t put herself out there, because she (the clone) wouldn’t. The audience, of course, doesn’t really learn this until much later, but we’re able to put the pieces together. Sarah’s death isn’t a disappointment, it’s a pyrrhic victory.
Regarding bonus features, there’re only two: a nearly 10-minute “Making Of” featurette and feature-length commentary from Stearns himself. If you enjoyed the film, both of these are going to make the purchase feel worthwhile. The “Making Of” is broken up into several vignettes covering things like the cast and characters, shooting in Finland, and how they managed the pandemic. If you like peeling back the curtain to learn how a film is made, there’re some interesting tidbits into the work that went into the production. But if you want the good goodies, the feature-length commentary is where it’s at. For instance, while watching the opening sequence, we learn that originally Stearns had cast his The Art of Self-Defense-lead Jesse Eisenberg in the role of the man we see fight his clone in the opening, Robert Michaels (a role that ultimately went to Theo James), but ultimately changed it because Eisenberg was in the middle of prep for his own film, When You Finish Saving the World, and knew Eisenberg needed to focus on that (his film ended up having its own premiere during Sundance 2022, as well). Another nugget comes later when we see Sarah trying to teach Aaron Paul’s Trent how to dance that there’s another scene with dialogue implying that they’ve done this before and always to the same song. For my money, however, it’s his discussion of the ending that makes the commentary worth the investment as it confirmed my interpretation of the hilariously sad conclusion which finds Sarah’s clone realizing that, where she was free before the duel, she is now absolutely trapped in a prison of her own making by taking a shortcut to her freedom instead of taking her chances on the face-to-face competition. It’s just so darkly delicious that the ending, while dower, still feels like a victory for Sarah.
It happens quite often where a film initially received strongly doesn’t hold up on additionally viewings. Sometimes it has to do with expectations or circumstance or, in this case, that the film was watched during a film festival and therefore feels more special than it might otherwise. In the case of Dual, a second viewing only increased this reviewer’s appreciation for the little details in the script that speak to a larger idea of appreciating the life you have and making of it what you can while you can. In her final moments, Sarah doesn’t whine or complain; all the audience gets is a raised eyebrow, recognizing that she had, like in her test with Trent, failed to remember poisoning as an option. But why was she poisoned? Because her clone recognized her as a threat because Sarah took the impending loss of her life seriously, transforming her perspective toward being present and active. Admittedly, the film isn’t for everyone, but it remains absolutely one I’d recommend.
Dual Special Features:
- The Making of Dual (9:50)
- Director Audio Commentary (1:34:27)
Available on VOD and digital May 20th, 2022.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD July 19th, 2022.
For more information, head to XYZ Films’s Dual webpage.