Dual Review: Karen Gillan Tries To Kill Her Double In Riley Stearns' Dark Comedy [Sundance 2022]

Riley Stearns, the filmmaker behind 2014's "Faults" and 2019's "The Art of Self-Defense," returns to Sundance with "Dual," an odd dark comedy which sits comfortably in the tonally unique corner of cinema Stearns has carved out for himself. In the director's movies, life is not something to be celebrated, but a punishment to be endured; the joke at the center of "Dual" is that characters will fight each other to the death in order to secure the misery of experiencing an average existence.

Sarah (Karen Gillan) is sick. She might have a bit of a drinking problem, she definitely has a complicated relationship with food, and she has an even more complicated relationship with her mother — but her most pressing problem is that she's vomiting blood. After a brief stint in the hospital, during which her currently-out-of-town boyfriend Peter (Beulah Koale) can't even be bothered to have a proper video chat with her because he's so distracted by work, Sarah heads home, only to receive word that she's been diagnosed with an incredibly rare terminal disease.

Now that she's dying, Sarah is eligible for replacement — the process of having a clone created so your family doesn't have to suffer as much when you die. If that sounds familiar, it's because a very similar idea was recently explored in Benjamin Cleary's "Swan Song," which ended up being one of my favorite movies of last year. A crucial difference between "Dual" and "Swan Song" is that here, Sarah is encouraged to discuss the prospect of replacement with her loved ones beforehand, whereas in "Swan Song," it's forbidden to reveal that you're considering being replaced. This movie is also interested in the financial consequences of a decision like this; there is no price for replacement in "Swan Song" because the technique is still experimental in that film, but in "Dual," it's become commonplace — and just like any other medical procedure in the United States, people have to pay dearly for it. Since she'll be dead, Sarah won't have to worry about a thing ... but her double will be saddled with paying down the astronomical cost of the procedure after the original dies. "Can you put a price on [your family] not having to be sad?" a consultant asks Sarah as she considers going through with it, and it's one of the very few moments in this movie that Stearns steps out of his immersive world to comment on the state of our real one.

In order for the replacement process to work smoothly, the double needs to spend as much time as possible with the original in order to learn how to essentially become them. The trouble begins on the first day: Sarah realizes her double doesn't have cellulite or love handles, is a size smaller than her, and the double almost immediately begins asking about Sarah's boyfriend's favorite sexual positions, presenting as just a bit too eager to take over Sarah's life. "When you're gone, I promise to love [your mom] as much as you do — maybe more," the double tells Sarah. "Same for Peter. I will love him so much." Naturally, Sarah is a little unsettled by this.

Training with Trent

Ten months later, the situation has gotten worse. Sarah's mysterious illness has vanished, but her double has essentially already taken over her life — she's been hanging out with Sarah's mom, and even dating Peter. ("Peter and I will probably make love when we get home tonight," Sarah's double tells the original as Peter and the double prepare to go on a date. "As you know, I tend to be loud, so I wanted you to be aware.") When Sarah tries to have her double decommissioned, the double exercises a right that Sarah must not have noticed in the fine print when she initially agreed to this process: If a double feels like they've established their own identity, they can challenge the original to a duel to the death, which are filmed and broadcast as a popular TV show.

Kicked out of her own apartment and with a year until the duel takes place, Sarah hires a personal combat trailer named Trent (Aaron Paul) and begins learning the most effective ways to kill her double. Paul doesn't show up until 40 minutes into the movie, and if you were hoping someone would Kool-Aid Man their way into this movie and inject some energy into the proceedings ... that's not what happens. Trent is a no-nonsense, all-business guy, and he's only concerned with getting Sarah mentally and physically prepared for what's to come.

As we've seen in previous projects, Gillan and Paul are both capable of tremendous warmth and charisma on screen. But that's not what they're asked to do here. Instead, their performances are close to robotic and disaffected — almost Eisenbergian, which underlines how "The Art of Self-Defense" star Jesse Eisenberg is perhaps the actor who has (so far) best embodied the singular style Stearns is going for. Like every other character in this movie, they're infused with a stoic nature and bone-dry humor. This is definitely a "wavelength" film: you either get on board with the heightened choices early, or you'll be distracted all the way through.

I won't spoil the ending, but the movie's opening scene, which features "Divergent" actor Theo James playing a guy who has to fight himself, sets the tone for how violent the duels can be. But as evidenced by this film's title ("Dual," not "Duel"), Stearns is not as concerned with creating a gruesome "Battle Royale" as he is with exploring the dynamics between characters and the contradictions and conflicts that arise when two of the "same" person come together. In the movie's best scene, both versions of Sarah visit a duel survivors support group, made up of people who won duels and those whose originals died before they had a chance to be able to properly mimic them. They listen to testimony from Larry, who was once a double who only had two days to learn about his original before the original took his own life, leaving Larry trapped with people he doesn't care about and in a life he didn't ask for. But since doubles can't have doubles made of themselves, Larry is stuck; in this speech, Stearns is able to capture the tremendous burden that can sometimes arise from simply being alive.

Ruthless, deeply cynical, and thrumming with jet-black humor, "Dual" is a Riley Stearns movie through and through.

/Film Rating: 8 out of 10