Sundance 2022 Review: “Dual”

Year: 2022

Runtime: 95 minutes

Director and Writer: Riley Stearns

Stars: Karen Gillan, Aaron Paul, Beulah Koale, Maiji Paunio

By Morgan Roberts

“Dual”(2022) is a witty and stylishly dark-humored film that is an examination of persevering past existential ennui.  The film follows Sarah (Karen Gillan) as she learns she is terminally ill.  Damn.  But to save her family from the hole she will leave behind, Sarah joins a program to have herself cloned to teach her replacement self how to be her before she meets her demise.  Then comes the kicker – Sarah doesn’t die.  Due to a law, people and their doubles cannot both survive, and Dual Sarah legally files for a duel to the death with OG Sarah.  Now, Sarah must embark on a journey to fight for her life even though she is not completely sure what life she is particularly fighting for.

Writer/director Riley Stearns comes into his third feature with the same biting wit as his two previous features, “Faults” (2014) and “The Art of Self-Defense”(2019). His writing has a particular cadence that is not always accessible, but once you can get into the rhythm of the work, you easily jive with the humor and marvel at the twists.  There are some laugh out loud funny lines, and some interesting direction shifts that take place in this film.  Stearns also writes great roles for women – see his other two films as additional evidence.  

In “Dual”, what is so intriguing about the protagonist here is her almost complete lack of joie de vivre.  When we meet Sarah, she is in a stale relationship, eating her weight in tacos, avoiding her overbearing mother, and generally unenthused by life.  She later gets her diagnosis and she does not cry.  When her clone arrives, Dual Sarah is vibrant, interested in the relationships Sarah neglected, and finding her own space in the world, which does mean pushing Sarah out of her own life.  Is Sarah the embodiment of millennial existential ennui?  I’d like to think so.  And her motivation to fight to live to spite others does have hardcore millennial vibes to it.  

Gillan does incredible work in this role playing Sarah and Dual Sarah.  Gillan leans into the cadence so perfectly, delivering some of the funniest lines with a straight face.  She understands the basic human need for her characters’ survival, even if happiness and joy are not necessarily part of the equation.  Gillan is also physically present in the film.  There are obviously some tactical and fighting sequences.  But, there is a mindfulness that Gillan possesses as she holds herself as either Sarah.  There is one scene in particular where Gillan limps/fast-walks across a field that is top tier physical comedy.  Speaking of physical comedy, there is also a hip-hop dance scene that is as iconic as the disco dance scene in “Ex Machina” (2014). 

In addition to commanding the screen on her own, some of Gillan’s best scenes are with Aaron Paul who portrays Sarah’s combat trainer.  Their banter is similar to that of a 1930’s/1940’s film.  There is an ease and respect between them that is quickly established.  It starts similarly to the student and Sensei in “The Art of Self-Defense” but ends up becoming a much healthier relationship than in Stearns’ previous film.  Paul’s character seems to be the first person in the film to understand Sarah, and it is refreshing to finally have someone on her side.

Admittedly, Stearns noted in the Q&A following the Sundance premiere, this film might not be for everyone.  I get that too.  But for someone who is a fan of Stearns’ previous work, “Dual” is a sharp satire about humanness and survival.  When you can lean into the rhythm of the film, you are sure to enjoy the ride. For fans of Stearns’ work – like myself – “Dual” just adds to his sardonic and smart filmography.  

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