Sarah (Karen Gillan) is a woman with little reason to live. Her boyfriend, Peter (Beulah Koale), can barely stand her (not that she notices). Her mother (Maija Paunio) just wants some return on her maternal affection (not that she cares). Most nights, Sarah falls asleep on her couch, empty bottles and food wrappers strewn under the table upon which she sets her laptop, which is mostly used as a portal for the extreme internet porn that keeps her physically satisfied for a brief moment. If she were to die, it’s an open question whether the few people in her life would truly miss her or simply move on (not that she thinks of such things). What’s to think about when there isn’t a lot going on in Sarah’s life?
That is, until the day she starts vomiting blood. Stomach bug? No, a blunt doctor (June Hyde) informs her, it’s a terminal illness. Sarah has a 98% chance of death. Faced with impending doom, Sarah starts to think about the people she’ll be leaving behind and makes arrangements with a special service to have herself cloned (or “doubled,” as it’s called here) so her presence will persist once she’s gone. Of course, she later learns that 2% margin of error has sent her illness into remission. The only problem is that Sarah’s double (also played by Gillan) is more well-liked by her family, and to “decommission” the other Sarah requires a constitutionally mandated dual to the death between the original and her duplicate.
It’s amazing how much life matters when the exit sign lights up.
Dual, writer-director Riley Stearns’ follow-up to his 2019 film The Art of Self Defense, shares that film’s bleak sense of humor, violent flourishes and taste for raw oddity. Both feature a real interest and focus on training and body movement as a way of finding oneself while on the brink of existential desolation, although the former had a far more cynical edge. Dual isn’t cynical, at least, but that doesn’t mean it has any more to say by the time the credits roll. It’s mildly interesting, goes to places you more or less expect of a clone story, and then wraps up in a pretty obvious fashion without much to cling to afterward.
The largest barrier to engagement is Stearns’ insistence that his characters speak in near-monotone deadpan. All of them. Not just Sarah, whose lack of emotion makes sense when the film starts, but her mother, her boyfriend, her double and her combat trainer, Trent (Aaron Paul). At times, it allows the characters to land some funny lines, mostly when they’re discussing serious life-or-death issues without any hint of emotion. It’s otherwise alienating and not in a way that elevates the material. Rather, the film becomes as emotionally one-note as the characters it follows. It’s never dull but never engrossing, either.
Most of the dark comedy comes from the premise itself, which is that these doubles are commissioned and enter life as blank slates that must spend time learning from their originals. They pick up imprinted behaviors and continue life once their predecessor has passed on, although they’re not always successful replicas. There’s something inherently inhuman about them. Stearns lands some decent jokes, but there’s an off-putting reliance on humor that draws from the idea of an original committing suicide before the double is ready to enter the world. This is mentioned multiple times, in part because it’s easier to shorthand the message of the movie by using theoretical suicide as a plot device rather than grappling with the real heartbreak of a terminal diagnosis.
The point of the main story is, of course, that Sarah didn’t know what she had until it was almost gone, and in the year of preparation she receives prior to the dual, she finds a new lease on life. It’s a depression allegory; the terminal illness element is mostly left by the wayside, unexplored. It cheapens the premise. It feels, oddly, like the true core of the story is a self-help lecture by an exercise guru. “Fix these things about yourself and you’ll be happier,” it says, “or wallow in it forever.” This makes the references to suicide feel more like shorthand to reach a certain emotional point. It feels shallow. Additionally, there’s also a reference to child kidnapping told in the same matter-of-fact tone as the rest of the film. It’s hard to feel anything when a film doesn’t want you connect with it on any level and all the humor comes from the basic shock that such weighty topics are being discussed with so much levity by making every character speak in the same detached tone.
Unfortunately, the set-up of Sarah versus her Double mostly comes to naught. For all of the control that Stearns’ aesthetic exerts over the film, the story he’s telling never leads to a particularly satisfying or exciting conclusion, with the most basic ending for this sort of story played out precisely as foreshadowed. Ultimately, Dual left me more frustrated than entertained.