Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. RLJE Films releases the film in theaters on Friday, April 15.
A dry-as-hell dark comedy set in a retro future where the terminally ill are allowed to replace themselves with their own clones — a decision that can only be undone by fighting their doppelgänger to the death on live TV — Riley Stearns’ “Dual” may have been conceived prior to the pandemic, but any film that so wickedly contrasts the banality of living against the urgency of survival is bound to hit a little harder after two years of lockdowns.
Which isn’t to suggest that “Dual” wouldn’t have been bruising enough on its own. Stearns didn’t pull any punches in “Faults” or ease up on his kicks in “The Art of Self-Defense,” and that brutal followthrough proves doubly satisfying throughout the no-holds-barred clone war he stages across this lean third feature. If the stranglehold Yorgos Lanthimos exerts over Stearns’ imagination is also twice as suffocating as it was before, even that can sometimes work to the advantage of a movie this eager to rattle our conception of originality and smirk at the need to feel unique. Being one-of-a-kind is overrated, anyway — it’s enough that “Dual” adds a fresh sprinkle of doom to the already savage deadpan of Stearns’ previous work, and bitterly crystallizes the existential anxieties that have crushed down on so many of us with new weight since the pandemic started. That it also allows Karen Gillan to give two hilarious performances, both colder than death but at distinctly different temperatures, is just icing on the cake.
For all of her zombified anhedonia, Sarah (Gillan) fits right into a world so perverse that numbness is the only reliable form of self-preservation. She lives in a nameless place (the Finnish city of Tampere gives a fittingly off-kilter performance as Anytown, USA), she speaks in the same manic GPS monotone as all of her neighbors, and she video chats with her absent boyfriend (Beulah Koale) every night just so they can tell each other that they’re tired and about to go to bed. Like so many of the finer details in Stearns’ films, that last one is just absurd enough to ring devastatingly true.
When Sarah falls asleep, she dreams about projectile vomiting pennies all over her mother, and when she wakes up she finds a pool of crusted blood around her mouth on the pillow. The doctor tells Sarah she’s dying of an incurable disease (“Nothing is absolutely certain, though this most certainly is”), but we’ll need a second opinion to know if she was ever alive in the first place. She registers for Replacement with all the same enthusiasm that you might buy a cheap sweater on Instagram — few things capture Stearns’ sandpapery sense of humor better than the promotional video Sarah watches about the cloning procedure, a scene as close as anyone has come to live-action Hertzfeldt — and one hour later Sarah is standing face-to-face with her much glossier double (Karen Gillan).
Naturally, Sarah begins to resent the more perfect version of herself who will take over her life after she dies, and the feeling is mutual between clones (“I really value your friendship and I will miss you when you die,” Sarah’s double insists in her affectless tone. “Speaking of which, any updates?”). But there is an update: Sarah is going to survive, which means that both of the Sarahs cannot. As stipulated by the 28th Amendment — an act of congressional unity that might just be the most far-fetched detail of Stearns’ otherwise grounded sci-fi satire — the two versions will fight to the death on a high school football field one year hence.
“Dual” isn’t too big on world-building (lo-fi technology does much of the heavy lifting here, with slide projectors and squelching dial tones co-existing alongside damningly realistic internet porn), but it sure is huge on training sequences. Indeed, almost the entire second act of the film is devoted to the private duel prep that Sarah gets from some guy named Trent she finds on the Linux-era internet.
Played by Aaron Paul in a steel-eyed supporting performance so on point that it makes you wish it were still cool to say that someone “understood the assignment,” Trent is the best combat trainer that no money can buy. Alessandro Nivola’s turn as a demented sensei in “The Art of Self-Defense” couldn’t possibly be improved upon, but it’s still a delight to watch Paul hold his own with a much sweeter riff on the same archetype. His role is to inject Sarah’s life with some fresh purpose and a sense of momentum, and Trent is able to do just that without softening the brittle dystopia that Stearns has built around him. If his scenes are disconnected from the rest of the film in a way that precludes a needed sense of closure, they also climax with a role play sequence as poignantly deranged — and peculiarly sensual — as anything Lanthimos has ever made. In a movie that can sometimes internalize Sarah’s identity crisis, moments like these reaffirm that “Dual” works best when Stearns listens for the sound of his own voice.
Even this film’s deficiencies make it clear that he has a lot to say, as the deadpan of it all only grows frustrating because it mutes the broader spectrum of human emotion that seems to be shimmering just under the surface. Strangely enough, “Dual” reliably gets close to unlocking that layer during its most juvenile moments, as Stearns finds a kind of “Beavis and Butthead”-level poetry in the sort of things that are too immature for other films like this touch — I’m looking at you, the guy who obviously had sex with his own double before murdering him on live television. Oh what horrors you must carry in your heart.
Of course, even those of us who haven’t slaughtered our clone with a pickaxe or whatever can appreciate what it feels like to kill a part of ourselves in order to survive, to live in a world that leaves us no other choice, and to wonder, as one of Stearns’ characters puts it: “What was the point of fighting to live if this is the price of living?” “Dual” may not be presumptuous enough to volunteer an answer, but few movies have more stingingly — or more literally — conveyed how difficult it can be to ask yourself the question.
“Dual” premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.