Sundance 2022: DUAL — Sometimes Our Greatest Enemy is Ourself

Riley Stearns transcends from martial artists assassinating Dachshunds, to a high concept sci-fi

Dual is the latest by Riley Stearns, who’s gone from martial artists assassinating Dachshunds, to a high concept sci-fi piece that shares the same dry sense of humor and bizarre inhabitants. The film stars Karen Gillan as Sarah, who one day discovers she’s got a mysterious incurable terminal disease, and her days are numbered. In the world of Dual there exist “replacements”, clones that are made for people who are going to die, that live on in their place after they pass, softening the blow of loss to those around them. While a clone can be turned around in a matter of hours, here they CAN’T be imprinted with the life experiences and memories of the original, so they must essentially be taught how to be the person they would be replacing. The crux of the issue is, when Sarah opts for a replacement, she experiences a miraculous recovery a few months later and her clone, petitions to not be “decommissioned” and instead of being killed live on as Sarah as she was originally intended.

The sole condition of this petition is that clone Sarah has to face the original Sarah in a duel to the death, which of course is televised. After learning this, original Sarah reaches out to a duel coach (Aaron Paul), who helps to not only condition her physically, but mentally, since most normal people aren’t able to simply kill another human, let alone a clone on themself on command. It’s Sarah’s very dry objective approach to this process, that slowly evolves into a will to live, that’s injected with pitch black humor which is the narrative engine at work here. Adding insult to injury Sarah’s family essentially kicks her out of her own life in favor of her more pleasant replacement. On her own, Sarah discovers a happiness in her new life that we start to understand was unattainable because of those around her.

Karen Gillan is pretty great here and manages to encapsulate an engaging and empathic performance in the acting style you’d expect from a Riley Stearns’ film. She’s playing dual roles here as expected, but it’s not simply used for a gimmick, it’s used to dissect the kind of intimate observations on oneself that one could only have with their clone. There are also some rather interesting choices made by both actor and direction that further fleshes out Sarah as a flawed but authentic character. Since it was shot during COVID the film very much lingers on Sarah and uses that time to really allow us to get to know her in a way that’s usually not afforded in a high concept film such as this. It’s that extra bit that really works in favor of a third act that has both women face to face, and it’s not exactly what you’d expect.

I am going to be very clear if you didn’t like The Art of Self Defense, you are probably not going to be able to hook into Dual either. They definitely have a very similar vibe in the way of themes and performances. Dual also once again touches on that master, student relationship thread, while throwing it into the future and being a bit more positive about the outcome. While the film isn’t singularly about her mentorship under Aaron Paul’s character, this film does focus on the training’s outcome and the new purpose she discovers through it. Dual works as not only a bizarrely believable take on the future, but a showcase for Gillan who still manages to shine through the dry style expected of her, turning in an unexpectedly intimate and moving performance.

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