A film review by Craig J. Koban July 19, 2022

DUAL  jjj

2022, R, 95 mins.

Karen Gillan as Sarah / Sarah Double  /  Aaron Paul as Trent  /  Beulah Koale as Peter  /  Theo James as Robert Michaels

Written and directed by Riley Stearns
 

 

 

The finest compliment that I would give writer/director Riley Stearns is that his films have a superficial premise simplicity, but buried deep beneath that is a twisted and oftentimes bizarre complexity that elevates it well above other predictable genre fare.   

No more was this true than with his 2019 effort THE ART OF SELF DEFENSE, which started as a basic KARATE KID clone, but then later morphed into a deeply disturbing and ultra black comedy that tapped into the most chilling aspects of male toxicity.  That film was funny and unnerving in equal measure, and it subverted audience expectations through and through.  Now comes his follow-up in DUAL (not to be confused with Steven Spielberg's DUEL), which is a high concept sci-fi thriller comedy that features a woman that decides to clone herself when she realizes that she's dying, only to recover fully and then is forced to fight her clone to the death to decide who gets to live solely as her.  Much like THE ART OF SELF DEFENSE, viewers may think that they know precisely where this story is heading, but Stearns relishes at contorting his film into something delectably odd, sometimes brilliantly deadpan, and shrewdly satirical.   

The very well cast Karen Gillan stars as Sarah, a young workaholic that lives a rather depressing and unfulfilling life at what we're to assume is some point in the near future (Stearns never uses obligatory title cards that give out time and place particulars, but it feels more or less in the present day).  When she's not engaging in  video conferences with her approaching estrangement boyfriend Peter (Beulah Koale) she's desperately trying to avoid contact with her overbearing mother (Maija Paunio).  Sarah drowns her sorrows with three things: booze, fast food, and online pornography (sometimes in that order, sometimes all at once).  One night she wakes up to discover that her pillow is covered in blood, so she makes a quick trip to the hospital.  After speaking with some medical professionals that have a really, really awkward bedside manner, Sarah discovers that she has an incurable aliment that will kill her soon.  Her not-quite-so-kindly doctor offers her one solution: Visit a nearby cloning facility and order a "replacement" of herself that can take over when she dies as a way of appeasing her loved ones.  She's relatively poor and doesn't know how she can afford it, but the company conveniently offers payment plans. 

Sarah opts for the procedure (they can copy her completely with just a spit sample), and in a flash her near duplicate stands before her, albeit with one minor difference caused by a glitch in the cloning process: the double's eyes are the wrong color (they give her a small discount for the error).  For the next ten months and before she's six feet under, Sarah is to train her doppelganger in the ways of being...her.  After all, Sarah's family will be so pleased once she's gone because, well, with her clone it will be like she never left.  It's at this point when Stearns' screenplay offers up a juicy sucker punch: It turns out that Sarah is not only on the mend, but is also in no way shape or form going to die.  Of course, this makes things incredibly awkward for both her boyfriend and mother, both of whom have become so attached to her clone that they actually begin to prefer it to her.  Her double has, for the most part, become such a better and more actualized version of Sarah that the real Sarah starts to become invisible to her loved ones.  Obviously, Sarah can't let this stand, so she opts to get legal help, which provides a simple option: At a pre-determined place and time, she will fight her clone to the death and the winner gets to live as Sarah forever.  There's one problem, though: Sarah sucks in the art of mortal combat.  Realizing this, she seeks out the tutelage of a local combat trainer, Trent (a hilariously understated and monotone Aaron Paul), who decides to guide her in the - ahem! - art of self defense. 

 

 

The whole concept of dueling your clone (the film's title has a nifty double meaning here) is brought immediately to the forefront in the opening scene, which shows a young man (Theo James) on a football field with spectators watching him and many live cameras shooting in the background.  Soon, he's forced to chose weapons to battle an unseen opponent at the fifty yard line, which is later revealed to be his clone.  It's a remarkably bleak opening to DUAL that sets one kind of expectation, but because Stearns loves to pull the rug out from under viewers he then opts to get pretty mischievous when it comes to flip-flopping tones.  The film begins like it's going to be some sort of dreary play on legally mandated death matches ala THE HUNGER GAMES (with a cloning element added in), but it then segues to the pathetic sad sack that is Sarah, who's so spectacularly failing in life that it becomes a strong source of the film's best laughs.  There's an compelling elusiveness with everything in DUAL, right down to the location (it might be America, but was shot largely in Finland) to the characters' origins (Sarah is played by the Scottish Gillan, but speaks in an awfully and purposely stilted form of Americanized English, more on that in a bit) to the whole build up to the clone creation and the aftermath.  And let me emphasize again...nothing that happens in this film follows a conventional template, which plays precisely into Stearns creative wheelhouse. 

I found THE ART OF SELF DEFENSE to be quite twistedly funny, and that trend continues with DUAL.  Stearns lays on the humor with a bone dry sensibility and a whole lot of wanton ludicrousness.  The scenario at play here is definitely ripe for satirical shenanigans, which is mostly derived from, as mentioned, Sarah's mercilessly disheartening existence.  That's where the performances comes in to complement Stearn's stylistic trappings, with Gillan being a more than willing participant and having a field day with being unafraid to shed her vanity and make herself look ridiculously in many scenes.  The secret to here is her laconic dialogue delivery, which at first seems distracting, but as the film progresses you begin to realize that it's a concentrated decision by Stearns to help flesh out the preposterousness of his film world.  No joke or line is overplayed for comedic effect; instead, even the most outlandish and out-there proclamation is dealt out by Gillan and her supporting stars with a pokerfaced bluntness.  This type of idiosyncratic straightforwardness allows for the actress to shine in unexpected ways in the film, and Gillan has the tough job of playing two versions of herself: One that's miserably of low self worth and the other (the double) that's a radiantly confident being.  And the more that the real Sarah resents her fake self the more morbidly and weirdly hysterical the film the becomes.  The best scenes occur when Sarah's clone has this bold manner of stating just how much better she is than Sarah at everything, whether it be with clothing, smoothing over her relationship with her mother, and - most personally wounding - performing in the sack with her lover. 

DUAL gets a lot of mileage out of the third act relationship between Sarah and her combat trainer, during which time she's given a whole year to prepare her mind, body and soul for the fight to the death to come.  It's at this point when Stearns orchestrates some inspired moments of nonsensical lunacy, like Paul's Trent finding the most matter-of-fact way of instructing Sarah on how to kill her prey (with both a lethally trained body and many weapons too).  Two scenes are inspired for their silliness, which shows Trent and Sarah literally slo-mo practice fighting or a later one that has her paying him back for the training sessions when he's short on cash (we're led to think that she'll sleep with him, but in a highly unexpected fashion she provides hiphop dance instruction for him).  This all builds to an undeniably sinister moment that culminates with the final leg of Trent's training: he brings in his dying dog (so he claims) into the dojo and asks Sarah to shoot it dead.  If she blows the pooch's brains out then she passes her final test with flying colors.  If she doesn't, then she's not ready for her battle with her clone to come.  I wouldn't dream of spoiling what she does here, other than to say that very few films make me squirm and watch them through my fingertips...but this moment did.  That's the Stearns effect. 

Actually, I don't want to say much more about what happens with the climatic "big fight" between the two Sarahs, but I will say this: It builds to highly unorthodox crescendos that perhaps don't pack the shocking wallop and gut punch impact that Stearns was aiming for here.  That, and even though the premise contained here is a novel one and Sarah's world is presented with minimalist flourishes as far as sci-fi films go, DUAL might be a bit too minimalist for its own good.  Some of the world building is frankly AWOL and left me asking a lot of questions (like, for instance, if so many people on multiple plans of the economic ladder can get themselves cloned and live on after death, then wouldn't that place a massive overpopulation burden on the planet itself without any kind of birth/death balancing system in place?).  The first two thirds of DUAL are dementedly entertaining as a low-fi-sci-fi social satire goes, and Stearns crafts a film that's smarter under the basic surface than it initially appears.  And the director's penchant for nervy, side splitting humor at the painful, wince inducing expense of his characters is his selling point.  I don't think that DUAL is the equal to THE ART OF SELF DEFENSE, but it's a cunning follow-up, to be sure, and one that finds unique outlets to dive into themes of death, reincarnation, battling negative self-image, and learning to confront depression and your biggest obstacles to happiness.  Going down the Riley Stearns rabbit hole won't be for all tastes.  His films are just too impenetrably strange for lay filmgoers, but give me impenetrably strange any day of the week and twice on Sunday.  

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