Review by Sean Boelman
As his follow-up to The Art of Self-Defense, Riley Stearns has made another pitch-black deadpan comedy, albeit with an even more ambitious concept. Dryly hilarious and delivering on its insane concept, the coldness of Dual may be off-putting to some, but will resonate with those who get on its idiosyncratic wavelength.
The film follows a woman who, after discovering that she has a terminal illness, gets herself cloned only to miraculously recover, and then must fight her clone in a duel to the death to decide which one of them gets to continue living. It’s a wild, sci-fi premise, but the thing about Stearns’s film is that it doesn’t feel too futuristic or exaggerated.
In line with the title, there is a bit of a duality in the film between the comedic and action-oriented portions. There’s definitely a dark, twisted sense of humor to the entire project, but there are some portions in which the film just embraces its zaniness, and those are some of the best parts. But Stearns also does a good job of building suspense, setting the stage for what is to come.
The film’s commentary may not be as profound as that of Stearns’s previous films, but there are still some really compelling things going on in the script. The observations that the film has on connecting with one another and oneself may not be the most original or profound, but they still have quite an impact.
One of the most impressive things about Stearns’s script is how he is able to build these two central protagonists so well. He does a phenomenal job of writing them in a way that feels close enough to be connected, yet still entirely distinct from one another. And the viewer will sympathize with both of them equally, which allows the film to have even more of an impact.
Karen Gillan isn’t known for having the most emotional nuance in her performance, but she is a perfect match for Riley Stearns. The director’s characteristically dry style matches with the fact that Gillan’s delivery is typically flat. As a result, the performance feels much more complex than it may have even been intended.
And despite the fact that the premise is very much science fiction, the film doesn’t feel all that futuristic. It’s a very restrained film within the genre, with much of the film’s creativity coming out in terms of the script and the opening scene. It’s not as action-packed as one might expect with the premise, but the action it does have is very effective (and funny).
Dual is exactly what fans of Riley Stearns’s last movie are hoping for. It’s the same style of humor, but at a slightly larger scale and perhaps a bit more subtlety with the way it explores its themes.
Dual screened at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, which runs January 20-30.