Have you ever had that nightmare where a clone takes over your life and then pushes you out of the picture? If you have, it’s probably best to skip the latest film from writer-director Riley Stearns, Dual. Or maybe you should watch it for some helpful tips.
Stearns has a peculiar way of intertwining the humorous and the horrific until the boundaries are unrecognizable. He strips away dialogue and emotion until all that remains is one character searching for self-acceptance. Dual is an uncomfortable black comedy that asks the painful question: Are being loved and being true to yourself mutually exclusive?
“Sarah, you’re going to die,” the doctor dryly pronounces. Sarah (Karen Gillan) considers this for a moment, her face an expressionless blank slate, and replies, “Why aren’t I crying?”
Crying is nothing but an external manifestation of emotion. Tears mean nothing in themselves. Perhaps a better question, one at the churning core of Dual, is, “What is the point of living if I don’t feel anything?” The answer to this question may seem obvious for your own life, but we come to realize what an intricate puzzle it poses for Sarah.
Everything about Sarah reads ‘disaffected’. Even her matter-of-fact speech pattern sounds robotic. She survives thanks to her mastery of compartmentalization: now is when I video chat with my disinterested boyfriend Peter (Beulah Koale); now is when I endure an excruciating interrogation from my mother (Maija Paunioz); now is when I watch internet porn, etc.
Stearns is a master at underscoring the importance of mundane repetition in our lives. In his previous film, The Art of Self-Defense (2019), he employed similar tactics when it was sometimes difficult to discern if his main character (played by Jesse Eisenberg) was speaking or reading a grocery list.
Despite her apparent lack of self-worth, Sarah decides to have herself cloned. The clone will replace her after the “incredibly rare” stomach disease finally takes her life. This clone is a spot-on match for Sarah, minus the emotional baggage. She can be the Sarah everyone wants; the abiding daughter, the attentive girlfriend, the unflappable extrovert. She is the refutation of everything that makes Sarah who she is. Stearns never lets Sarah or the audience forget how frequently we are punished for our insecurities.
Because the Universe is indifferent, Sarah’s 100% fatal condition goes into remission. The 28th Amendment grants a clone the right to challenge being decommissioned, at which time a duel to the death takes place on national television between the original and their clone. We witness one of these brutal duels in the film’s thrilling opening sequence, so we know Sarah is in big trouble.
She hires a personnel trainer (Aaron Paul as ‘Trent’), but he can’t instill her with the will to live. That is Sarah’s task, her burden. Her family and lover prefer the clone, so Sarah must find the reason to live for herself before others can fully embrace her.
Dual puts us in the unenviable position of watching someone duel themselves but gives us plenty of voyeuristic thrills along the way. Stearns manipulates the intricacies of black comedy like a surgeon. We see the players, follow their progression, and then decide if our hero has earned a second chance at life. However, getting them to accept this second chance is a different matter entirely.