Written and directed by Riley Stearns.
Starring Karen Gillan, Aaron Paul, and Beulah Koale.
A woman opts for a cloning procedure after she receives a terminal diagnosis, but when she recovers her attempts to have her clone decommissioned fail, leading to a court-mandated duel to the death.
Riley Stearns follows up his terrifically entertaining The Art of Self-Defense with another blackly comedic stab at a genre film, in what might offer the most inherently attention-grabbing premise of anything playing at this year’s Sundance.
In the near-future, a woman named Sarah (Karen Gillan) is diagnosed with a rare, incurable disease in her stomach which presents a 98% fatality rate. While weighing up her end-of-life options, Sarah is told about “replacement,” a procedure whereby she can spit into a test tube and, within an hour, a genetic clone will be generated to spare her friends and family the grief of her death.
The clone’s development will be determined by how long the double is able to spend with Sarah, soaking in her personality like a sponge in a process called “imprinting,” but Sarah’s plans are again thrown for a loop when she learns that she’s now in total, miraculous remission.
Such circumstances will typically result in the clone being “decommissioned,” but because Sarah Double, as she’s called, has been on Earth for some time by this point, she files a legal motion to stay. This requires the two Sarahs to take part in a duel to the death a year later to determine which will “live the rest of Sarah’s life.”
After a straight-faced opening sequence depicting one of the duels – where a man (Theo James) battles his clone on a football field, with an audience both in-person and televised – Stearns presses on with what is less the sci-fi actioner its premise might suggest than a savage existential dark comedy.
Touting the same fearlessness that made The Art of Self-Defense such a refreshing treat, Stearns’ devastating and devastatingly funny film explores the particulars of mortality, of how we as a society deal with death – or, rather, don’t – wrapped within a speculative, not-so-far-flung future satire.
Stearns appears to be a fan of Yorgos Lanthimos, styling much of his dialogue with a similarly intentionally robotic, flattened affect. This pays off hilarious dividends during Sarah’s meetings with her doctor, who lacking even the faintest shred of bedside manner says of her original diagnosis, “It will be painless but it is killing you.”
But what impressed me most about Dual is how incredibly well thought-out it is conceptually. The sci-fi future itself is low-key and low-budget, conveyed more through dialogue than visuals, where clones and duels aren’t particularly out of the ordinary, the latter also being reserved for “the crime worse than murder” (it’s not elaborated upon, but we can assume what).
The script also incisively explores the crushing emotional realities of Sarah’s predicament. Firstly, there’s the psychological dilemma that replacement itself presents, of lessening the grief of your loved ones but at the expense of your true self never really being mourned, because your death will be trivialised into a mere inconvenience as your clone picks up the lead.
This becomes even more of a noodle-baker given that the clone isn’t a direct facsimile of a person’s body and personality, and as is the case with Sarah, those closest to her – namely her boyfriend and mother – seem to prefer the more receptive clone. Stearns does a remarkable job milking these issues for both gut-wrenching laughs and genuine pathos.
The second half of the film becomes more explicitly concerned with the upcoming duel, and digs enthusiastically into the lore and rules of the government-mandated battles to the death with just as much cutting humour and emotional plausibility.
Each duel takes place on a football field with participants spaced at each end of the field, where combatants have a table of five weapons to choose from. A sheet in the middle of the field shields the participants from one another until go-time, preventing them from figuring out which weapon their other might be selecting. And so, Sarah spends the bulk of her year’s prep time training with Trent (Aaron Paul), an hilariously dry-mannered martial artist who puts her through a battery of amusingly fucked-up tests as part of his combat school.
The psychological implications of murdering someone who looks like you are significant, and so one of Trent’s exercises involves sending Sarah to watch the autopsy of a woman who looks just like her, while further conditioning her for violence by giving her grisly schlock-horror films to watch. Again, Stearns strikes the funny-WTF balance exceptionally well, pinballing between the emotional difficulties and galling comedic potential of the situation – a balance perhaps best struck when Sarah and her double both visit a duel survivors support group.
Great though the movie’s hook is, it wouldn’t fully work without the committed efforts of a game cast, especially Karen Gillan, whose two-hander as the Sarahs is as believable as it is terrifically entertaining. Both Sarahs are inherently sympathetic characters in their own way, and Gillan perceptively differentiates the two beyond their mere wardrobes and hairstyles.
The imprinting process, where Sarah Double asks Sarah Original about her preferences from food to sex, is especially amusing. Gillan also gets a number of memorable scenes opposite Aaron Paul’s Trent, whose severe, deadpan manner gives way to a riotously unexpected payoff later on.
Aesthetically-speaking this is a handsomely mounted effort that makes the most of its Finland location shoot, less a creative choice than a necessity due to pandemic-related filming restrictions in the U.S. It nevertheless adds a further heightened veneer to the near-future setting; characters pay for things in dollars, and yet, this land is very clearly not the United States, with numerous minor characters speaking with distinct Nordic accents.
Stearns has an eye for attention-grabbing imagery; the much-publicised shot of Sarah staring at a mirror image of herself attached to a cardboard cutout of a ninja is tough to shake, as is a surreal nightmare sequence early on in which Sarah dreams herself coughing up coins shortly before her terminal diagnosis. Tying together Michael Ragen’s rich imagery is a pulsing, discordant electronic score.
All in all, this is less about the central battle than it is an exploration of mortality and duality, but Stearns nevertheless builds to a satisfyingly twisted finale that’s sure to provoke its fair share of discussion – if not frustration for some. There’s far more to Dual than its dishy premise might suggest, digging deep into the brutal, often blackly funny emotional realities of competing against yourself.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.