Filmmaker Riley Stearns has a very unique view of the world. It comes out in his writing and direction, as his characters occupy a universe ever so slightly different than our own. If you crossed Wes Anderson with Yorgos Lanthimos, you’d have someone not too dissimilar from Stearns. His movies include Faults and The Art of Self-Defense have showcased this well, with the latter an underrated gem. Now, at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, he’s got a new effort in Dual. This sees Stearns toy with science fiction, but in his own specific style. The end result is something quite compelling.
Dual is sci-fi, to be sure, but mostly a black comedy, one with a very nice core performance. The style is very deadpan and specific, so some folks might find it absolutely too dry, even as others find it to be a riot. Largely, I fell into the latter category. Assuming you get on its wavelength, you’re in for a bleak treat.
Set in the future, we’re introduced to the average life of Sarah (Karen Gillan). Deadpan and run of the mill, she’s just going about her life. When she’s suddenly diagnosed with a terminal illness, Sarah takes it oddly well. She also begins looking into a procedure to clone herself. You see, cloning is legal, but only for those who are dying. It functions as a means of sparing your family and friends from grief.
Seemingly on a whim, Sarah opts to do it. Her clone seems stronger-willed than expected, representing a brighter version of herself, so much so that her boyfriend Peter (Beulah Koale) leaves her for it. This should all be academic, since she’s dying, except…it turns out she isn’t. Normally, a clone would be decommissioned in this case, but the clone of Sarah has took up roots and wants to stay. Luckily, the government has a mechanism to solve that…a dual to the death. Mortified by violence, Sarah seeks out a trainer (Aaron Paul) to train her. In a year’s time, it’s going to be her or her clone continuing on as Sarah.
Karen Gillan is an excellent fit for this sort of material. She hits dark comedy and deadpan in a really amusing yet oddly emotive manner. Gillan is terrific here, making both parts stand out but also clearly showing off that one is a clone. Aaron Paul is having a good time here, also vibing with what the film is asking for. Supporting players here include Theo James, Beulah Koale, Maija Paunio, and more.
Riley Stearns doesn’t quite approach what he did with The Art of Self-Defense, but Dual is still very good. His direction concerns itself more with implementing the script more so than it does with a memorable visual palate. Like Stearns’ other work, it’s grey, which isn’t quite as effective here. Luckily, he fills his flick with little moments that make you burst out laughing, even as it’s telling a potentially very upsetting story.
Dual may prove to be a bit divisive, but it’s a quality Sundance title that has its own distinct personality. If you’ve liked Stearns’ prior work, this shouldn’t change any of your affection. If you don’t care for him, this probably won’t convert you. Still, if you ask me if the film is worth seeing, I would say yes, without hesitation.