What would you do if you had to fight your double to the death in order to survive? That’s the intriguing, albeit deceptive, logline of writer/director Riley Stearns‘ latest film.
The film begins with an adrenaline rush: a man (The Divergent Series’ Theo James) is attacked on a football field by an unknown assailant who is eventually revealed to be…himself. This is our introduction to Dual’s slightly futuristic world in which there are doubles – or replacements – for individuals who are dying. If an extraordinary situation arises when both the original and the clone want to live, however, they must Duel to the death for the pleasure of a TV audience.
The bulk of the film follows Sarah (Karen Gillan, Doctor Who), a young woman who unexpectedly discovers that she has a rare illness with a 98% fatality rate (her extremely frank doctor played by Sanna June-Hyde candidly explains that the two remaining percent is simply “the margin of error”).
In an effort to spare her absent boyfriend Peter (Beulah Koale) and her needy mother (Maija Paunio) the grief of losing her, Sarah purchases a Replacement, who looks exactly like her minus a different eye colour (an error that gets her a 5% discount, which is important considering the double will be responsible for paying off the balance once Sarah has died, which means Replacements are effectively paying for the right to live).
It is immediately clear that the two Sarahs are quite dissimilar and, in no time, Sarah’s Double (as she is called) has begun a sexual relationship with Peter and is talking regularly to Sarah’s mother. Then Sarah learns the news that she has gone into complete remission; she isn’t going to die, but now she must Duel herself.
From that description, it would be fair to assume that Dual is a cloning thriller, particularly given Gillan’s career trajectory in the Guardian of the Galaxy films and, more recently, Gunpowder Milkshake. But Stearns’ latest is definitely a satirical comedy (albeit with a sci-fi angle) that takes aim at everything from the mundane banalities of everyday life to the capitalistic costs associated with death and dying. Gillan, meanwhile, is more than willing to play not just two versions of herself, but also a character that is both dry and lacking emotion.
For audiences familiar with Stearns’ previous work, The Art of Violence, this new feature has the same cadence and tone, and will not work for everyone. There’s a clipped performativity to the dialogue and the delivery from not just Gillan, but the whole cast that feels vaguely Yorgos Lanthimos-lite. If this is too jarring, the film won’t resonate, but if audiences connect with it, Dual is exceedingly funny.
This is especially true when Sarah begins taking combat training lessons from Trent, a Duel specialist played by Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad). Their camaraderie over dark topics, such as weapon selection and cause of death, is delightful, particularly a scene involving Trent’s dog that is completely inappropriate and therefore utterly hilarious. There’s also an infamous hip hop dance sequence, but even that is evidence of Kearns’ interest in subverting expectations, which confirms how savvy and self-aware Dual is.
The ending similarly challenges expectations in a way that is sure to be polarizing. Undoubtedly there will be those who find it underwhelming. For me, it worked; particularly how the last few scenes reinforce the film’s messaging about how we do – and don’t – value our lives. This comes through exceedingly well in a repeated visual motif of Sarah only being able to truly express herself emotionally in her car.
Finally, it’s worth highlighting that the film was shot in Finland, because the simultaneously familiar, but foreign landscape lends the film a chilly and impersonal, but also naturalistic, vibe. It’s the perfect complement to the film’s themes and tone.
The Bottom Line: With its wry, dry humour, Dual is an exceptionally funny film about learning to appreciate your life when you’re in danger of dying. It’s smart and clever, and Gillan is compelling, especially in her scenes with Paul. This one is a big recommend.
Dual premiered at Sundance 2022.