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Saturday, January 22, 2022

[Sundance Review] High Concept Sci-fi ‘Dual’ Ponders Existence with Infectious Pitch-Black Humor

Riley Stearns’ follow-up to pitch-black comedy The Art of Self Defense once again puts his knack for off-kilter humor on display. Only this time, the writer/director applies it to a high-concept sci-fi story that uses an end-of-life decision as the starting point. Dual uses deadpan delivery and oddball performances to capture the strangeness of life, especially when faced with death.

Sarah (Karen Gillan) is an awkward homebody whose primary social interaction is talking to her boyfriend (Beulah Koale) via video chat while he’s away for work. Her simple existence gets shattered with a sudden terminal illness diagnosis, prompting her to examine options to ease the blow for her loved ones. Sarah’s encouraged to participate in a cloning procedure that will allow her double to assume her life once she’s gone with her loved ones none the wiser. But Sarah’s double is a little too effective at her job as a replacement. Things get complicated fast when Sarah no longer wants the clone at all, leading to a court-mandated duel to the death.

After a thrilling opening that sets up the stakes for the two Sarahs, Dual slows down and settles into an offbeat sci-fi comedy that forces its protagonist to reexamine her life. Gillan nails the quirky tone, making for an endearing and eccentrically aloof lead you root for, creating fascinating character dynamics with everyone in her orbit. While the story designates early on that a manufacturing fluke created a different eye color in Sarah’s clone, Gillan makes this an irrelevant plot point with a much more assured and warmer double.

Aaron Paul and Karen Gillan appear in DUAL by Riley Stearns

Dual is at its most entertaining when Sarah hires a trainer (Aaron Paul) to help her prepare for her deathmatch. Paul matches Gillan’s energy and deadpan skill, making their silly practices with weaponry and testing all the funnier. Her interactions with her double and boyfriend present a much more heartbreaking scenario. All these relationships lend emotional authenticity and covertly shape Sarah’s outlook on living.

Stearns has a unique way of employing pitch-black comedy to explore high concept stories unpredictably. Everything about Dual’s setup and Sarah’s ultimate predicament seems simple and straightforward, but Stearns keeps you guessing right up to the end. It’s not just in the performances that keep you unsure but in the cool, gray palette and intentionally nebulous worldbuilding. Beyond Sarah’s apartment, there’s no firm sense of time and place.

How Sarah’s engaging arc concludes offers a quiet reflection that lingers long after. Gillam’s dual performances make rooting interest far more complex than expected, and Stearns leaves it up to the viewer to discern the ramifications. So much so that Dual’s almost minimalist final act can take a while to register its impact. Dual wraps up as a very different movie than the opening scene presents. It’s an idiosyncratic character study with a few moments of violence to raise its stakes. One woman faced with her own death sounds inherently tragic. In Stearns and Gillans’ hands, it becomes a deeply funny, resonant, and authentic examination of vital relationships and life itself.


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