This review was originally published as part of our Sundance 2022 coverage.
In Dual, everyone talks like they’re a robot. Perhaps that’s because they want to better integrate new Replacements, clones made of terminally ill or otherwise on-their-way-out people, into the world. Maybe it’s because the delivery is supposed to be as dry, strange and winning as the low-key sci-fi itself. Regardless, this idiosyncratic acting choice by writer/director Riley Stearns is just one of many over the course of his third and (so far) best movie.
The world of Dual is near-future, or present-adjacent but in another dimension. Its video chat is Zoom-like, but texting has more of a coding aesthetic. Its minivans still run on gas, but you can make a clone out of spit in an hour. Its people still love violent reality TV, but its shows sometimes involve government-mandated fights to the death between people who discover they’re no longer dying and their Replacements. It’s the latter situation in which Sarah (Karen Gillan) finds herself. After puking up blood, creating a clone to take over her life and receiving improbable good news from a scene-stealingly funny doctor, Sarah finds that she has a year to prepare for the fight of (and for) her life.
But what’s she really there to win? Sarah’s Double—as she’s called—steals her life with the quick and easy precision of an imposter presenting a person at their best. She’s unsullied by the hardships of the world, unfazed by her mother’s constant needs for attention. It’s Sarah but with no depression, no love handles, no drinking problem, and no qualms about fucking in the position her terrible boyfriend (Beulah Koale) likes best. As she comes to terms with what’s actually at stake, Sarah’s journey becomes even more engrossing. Stearns shoots the film in grim, hands-off observations sapped of color and intimacy, but with amusing angles or choices (like a long take watching characters do slo-mo play-acting) that add visual energy to the bleakness. As we see this unfurl, we root for Sarah’s success not because we want her to get her old, sad life back, but because the training process has opened her up to life beyond those walls. It can be read as a redemptive allegory representing a life-shaking break-up or other crisis, but Stearns’ deadpan script and wry situations rarely give you enough distance to consider Dual beyond the hilarious text in front of you.
Gillan goes beyond a cutesy Black Mirror performance to find tragedy, obscene humor and warmth even in her relatively stoic roles, but the shining star of the show is Aaron Paul, who gets the biggest laugh lines as her intense combat instructor. Somewhere between a living instruction manual and the “Self-Defense Against Fresh Fruit” Monty Python sketch, Paul’s character is a riot as he attempts to familiarize Sarah with weapons and desensitize her to violence. His performance is just as committed as his serious scene partner’s, but when the two are in the groove together, Dual transcends to such big-hearted, surreal silliness that I had a hard time calming my laughter down as the film reminded me that death was on the line.
But maybe, as the film insinuates, death isn’t the worst thing there is. Maybe there’s a grace and dignity to death, and attempts to circumvent it can easily be made obscene or grimly amusing. While Dual’s emotional arc and sharp plotting carry its potent concept to a perfectly unsatisfying conclusion, its weird incidents—ranging from uncomfortable glimpses of physical humor in a cloning company commercial to a support group where a guy has definitely boned his clone—build out its world impeccably.
Stearns’ work has always been a bit of a specific flavor, a little like that of Yorgos Lanthimos where if you’re not in on the dark joke you can feel ostracized from the universe of the movie, and Dual is both his most successful and most eccentric yet. But if you’re blessed with matching taste, where you’ll put up with a bunch of over-literal, stiff-backed oddballs dealing with a clone crisis, you’ll find a rewarding and gut-busting film that’s lingering ideas are nearly as strong as its humorous, thoughtful construction.
Director: Riley Stearns
Writers: Riley Stearns
Stars: Karen Gillan, Aaron Paul, Beulah Koale
Release Date: January 22, 2022 (Sundance)
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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