This review of Riley Stearns’ Dual is part of our 2022 Sundance Film Festival coverage. For more reviews and essays, visit our Sundance tab.
We know the stated end goal of Riley Stearns‘ Dual in its opening scene, and it comes with literal end goals. A man stands on a football field, a table of weapons before him, and at the other end stands his double with the very same table — and only one of them will be leaving the field alive. Of course, it’s not a promise of what’s to come but a mere suggestion, and therein rests the film’s biggest hurdle as it takes a fantastically intriguing premise and fumbles in its performances and final steps.
It’s the future, but also now, and a technology exists with which to clone yourself to make it easier for your loved ones to go on living after you’ve stopped. Clones are allowed only for the terminally ill as two of the same person in the world is a recipe for chaos, but Sarah (Karen Gillan) finds a hiccup in the plan after being given less than a year to live. She buys a clone, allows it to ingratiate herself into Sarah’s life via her boyfriend and mother and bank account — and then discovers that her illness has gone into remission. The clone challenges Sarah’s decommission order and instead employs her legal right to a dual, and now Sarah, a woman who had given up on life even before she was told hers was ending, finally finds a reason to stay alive.
Dual features the kind of setup that seems like it would feel right at home on an episode of Black Mirror as technology and societal whims collide with grimly entertaining results, but in addition to stretching the premise to feature length Stearns is only half interested in taking that route. To be sure, his script does take jabs at the health care system, corporate liabilities, and more, but the focus is more on one individual’s need for growth. That’s fine on paper, but while the initial building blocks are here they come tumbling down well before the end credits roll.
Stearns has directed his cast to act with flat inflection, a robotic delivery that leaves no distinction between human and double — and leaves very little room for emotional connection. While similar efforts work in movies like The Lobster, they do so there because they come paired with grand exaggeration and actors whose faces reveal feelings even when their dialogue delivery doesn’t. Dual lacks both of those things, and while Gillan and Aaron Paul (who plays her self-defense trainer, Trent) are solid actors neither is able to transcend the flatness of their words. The (perhaps too) obvious choice would been to play the double as livelier to show the difference between the apathetic Sarah and her “improved” clone, but having them feel interchangeable lessens the already limited emotional connection with viewers.
There are dark laughs in Dual as Sarah is instructed to pay support to the double, her own mother comes to prefer the clone, and Sarah 2.0 quickly succumbs to life’s frustrations, but too little is done with the observations. And then there’s the ending. No spoilers here, but the choices Stearns makes require emotional connections that just aren’t here — we’re not nearly as invested as the film needs us to be, and the already low energy heading into the third act is left only to deflate further.
What does work, to a degree at least, is the film’s thoughts on what it takes to become not just a “better” person, but the person we deserve to be. As mentioned, Sarah begins the film as someone who’s no longer moved by life. Small frustrations mount, but for the most part she’s living an indifferent life. The terminal diagnosis confirms that feeling, but the reversal gives her the jolt she was lacking. Her time with Trent, in addition to being the film’s sole moments of personality and life, see her slowly waking up to possibility and purpose. It’s promising, but as with everything else it’s undercut by the choice to play everything so monotone.
Dual may not live up to its highly intriguing premise of having to literally fight yourself if you want to survive, but the idea is no less interesting for it. There are enough moments here to make a watch worthwhile — and the ninety-five minute running time certainly helps — but it might leave you wishing Stearns could get a do-over and a second chance at giving the film life.
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