- Director: Riley Stearns
- Writers: Riley Stearns
- Starring: Karen Gillan, Aaron Paul, Beulah Koale, Theo James
In just a handful of feature films as a writer and director, Riley Stearns has firmly established himself as a connoisseur of dark, deadpan humor. But he uses this style of comedy to effectively explore surprisingly complex themes. 2019’s The Art of Self-Defense used its humor as a way to explore toxic masculinity and the ways it permeates our culture. Dual scratches the surface of bigger ideas, but is less successful in its execution. Stearns is unquestionably a unique voice in the independent film landscape today though, which earns Dual a certain amount of brownie points.
Set in the not-so distant future, the film uses a sci-fi concept as a rumination on death and identity. Early on, Sarah (Karen Gillan) learns that she’s suffering from a rare, incurable disease that will lead to her death – she has a 100% chance of dying, though there’s a 2% margin of error. Or, as her doctor helpfully summarizes the prognosis, in one of the funniest bits of dialogue: “to use a baseball analogy, life has thrown you a curveball. Curveballs are tricky throws for the batter to hit. In this case, you’re the batter, only you’re not even holding the bat, so you’re most definitely going to miss the ball.” There is good news though, as medical science has advanced enough that cloning technology is readily available to those with fatal diseases. Sarah can easily have herself cloned and teach her double all about her life and experiences, so her loved ones won’t really know the difference after she dies.
But, in an inspired plot twist that kicks off the second act, Sarah’s double (also played by Gillan, of course) gets along better with her friends and family than the original. Her boyfriend Peter (Beulah Koale) essentially dumps her, and her mother gets along swimmingly with the clone, despite their reportedly rocky history. And to add insult to injury, she learns her fatal diagnosis wasn’t so fatal and she won’t have to worry about the whole dying thing after all. And the company that created the clone can easily decommission her for Sarah. But her double has enjoyed living so much that she refuses to be disposed of, in which case there will be a legally-sanctioned, ironically inhumane dual to the death to determine which one will live and which will stay – hence the film’s cleverly worded title.
Gillan is an inspired bit of casting in a Riley Stearns film, as her most famous role is literally playing a robot in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Sarah takes in every bizarre development with an inhuman level of dispassion; she even wonders why she doesn’t cry after receiving the initial news of her diagnosis. But for the film to really have an impact, we should feel the humanity within Sarah. We should understand why she wants to stay alive, beyond a compulsory need. She never expresses many wants or desires or long-term ideals, which unfortunately holds the character at arm’s length for the bulk of the film. Indeed, most of the second and third acts involve her training for the duel with Trent (Aaron Paul), a weirdo gym owner which shares some similarities with Art of Self-Defense.
The opportunity to play two versions of one person is usually like catnip for an actor, but Gillan only makes the subtlest of tweaks to differentiate the versions of herself. Usually the best way to tell which Sarah is which is by their hairstyles. Though perhaps Stearns is commenting on something by the machinelike nature of nearly every character in Dual. What that something is though is a little unclear, beyond a stylistic choice.
There is some heart to be found by the end of it, though, including a tragically sweet finale between the two. While I’ll always champion an independent film with no grander ambitions than to tell an original story, and while I’ll always hold a special place in my heart for morbid humor, it’s hard not to leave Dual without feeling like something was left on the table. At the very least, Stearns remains an interesting filmmaker worth watching, as his comedic sensibilities and unique perspective is one that is too rare to find in Hollywood today.
Dual will be released in theaters on April 15, 2022 and available on VOD on May 20, 2022.