SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL 2022 REVIEW! Riley Stearns caused a stir at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival with his sophomore feature-length effort, The Art of Self-Defense. Now, he is back to stir things up with Dual, starring Karen Gillan and Aaron Paul. Your mileage with this darkly comedic slice of lo-fi sci-fi will vary depending on your appreciation of the writer/director’s earlier work. It seems all his characters inhabit the same Stearns Cinematic Universe.
Sarah (Karen Gillan) is delivered a death sentence by her doctor, as she’s diagnosed with a rare terminal condition that possesses a rather short expiration date. The delivery and receiving of this news are bone-dry and matter-of-fact. When discussing her funeral options, Sarah is provided a pamphlet for “Replacement,” a company that can create an exact clone with a swipe of a nostril. Feeling that this might be an alternative to help her mother and boyfriend cope with the situation, Sarah agrees and spends what she believes to be her final days imprinting all of her likes and dislikes onto “Sarah 2.0” in preparation for the inevitable day.
Ten months later, that inevitable day never arises, and a return trip to her doctor provides Sarah with the news that she is in remission and free to live life as normal. Of course, this now means “decommissioning” the clone. But, it turns out her clone is much more admired by both her mother and boyfriend and enjoys living Sarah’s life. So the clone hits Sarah with a court order, stating that she refuses to be decommissioned and must accept a duel to the death. Said duel will be broadcast on TV for a large, devoted audience.
“…the clone hits Sarah with a court order, stating that she refuses to be decommissioned and must accept a duel to the death.”
If so far, you have been nodding in logical agreement to all of this, then the homonymic Dual will fit right in your wheelhouse. But, on the other hand, if you are scanning what you just read for some obvious omission for a paragraph or two, then I would suggest looking elsewhere. Stearns’ idiosyncracies are just beginning.
In preparation for this televised death match, Sarah seeks the help of a skilled combat trainer so she can eliminate her clone. As she is rather hard up for cash, Sarah settles on Trent (Aaron Paul). This cut-rate tactical expert’s approach to deadly combat involves the same level of passion Sarah displayed receiving her death notice: very little. Even the inevitable “training montage” consists of mostly somersaults, watching 1980s slashers, and slow-motion swipes with cardboard weapons.
Dual comes loaded with questions for its audience, but Stearns is not at all interested in answering them or even tipping his hat in any single direction. The same could be said for The Art of Self-Defense, which many found to be a takedown on toxic masculinity, yet it never once suggests that the noxious cycle of violence can or should be broken. The subject matter here is not as odious as that, but its tone and performances are every bit as purposefully stilted and odd. Gillan is always a powerhouse, and the set-up of her in a Battle Royale rumble is enticing. Still, the actor is required to maintain a monotone delivery from which only the slightest emotions escape.
Just as in his previous work, there will be legions of Stearns apologists who will craft their own meaning from Dual. And you know, I am glad this exists for them. For me, I’d prefer the dystopian surrealism of Yorgos Lanthimos that pushes a tad bit further and adds a whiff of whimsy to the pitch-black proceedings.
Dual screened at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.
"…Gillan is always a powerhouse..."