Sundance Review: Dual
What would happen if when you found out you were dying, you could clone yourself to take your place and save your loved ones a bit of heartache? And what if you didn’t actually die and it turned out you had to dual your clone to the death?
This is the set-up in Riley Stearns’s Dual. The second question is the one that distinguishes it – in substance, theme, and tone – from the litany of dour sci-fi films about the ramifications of cloning (and offshoots thereof). In substance: the inevitable dual between Sara (Karen Gillan) and her double give Dual its driving force, a motoring engine around which to build the broader vehicle for philosophical questions. In theme: rather than harping on questions of morality and identity typical to this sub-genre, the dual gives Stearns license to drill down on something altogether more familiar: the will to survive amidst the monotony of life. And, perhaps most importantly, in tone: Dual is fucking hilarious.
It’s a good thing RLJE Films acquired Dual and set it for an exclusively theatrical release – this movie will hit hard with a crowd. Most entries in this particular brand of sci-fi quiver with sobriety – even when executed stunningly, as in this year’s spectacularly-wrought After Yang, there’s very little that even grazes the funny bone – which means Dual’s biting humor can be easy to shrug off if you’re not expecting it. When watched with a crowd, though – a collective that gives each individual the permission to laugh despite the bleak circumstances – the comedy comes early and often. A dark, staccato tale of survival, writer-director Stearns uses that humor to mask an underlying philosophical bent that sneaks up on you like a crossbow-strapped doppelgänger ready to pierce your heart with a single shot.
A proven master of tonal shifts and black comedy with The Art of Self-Defense takes on wilder shifts from both ends of the spectrum in Dual. At first, Sara plods along in her empty daily life – even cataclysmic life news isn’t enough to shake her from the monotony-induced trance that we’ve all experienced to some degree for the last two years. Here, Stearns relies on droll, dark humor to nudge audiences out of their expectations and into – against all odds – a damn good time. One early interaction between Sara and her doctor would be played for tears from 99/100 directors, but Stearns’ unique pitter-patter and desire to find the perverse in the mundane turns it into something gut-splitting (earning tears through laughter, in the end).
But don’t get too comfortable: when Sara meets her new trainer (Aaron Paul), Dual takes on a new identity, suffused with an energy that matches that of its main character. Like Sara, Dual wants to live again. It comes alive alongside its red-haired protagonist, and with the oddly kinetic, targeted performances from Paul and Gillan, the film’s style worms its way inside viewers and forces you onto its wavelength.
The film twists and turns and loops around on itself from there – including a few of the more memorable support group characters this side of Fight Club – but once to spoil that would be to ruin the back half of a great book just after you’ve gotten used to the author’s writing style. Whenever and however you see Dual, make sure you bring a few friends along to share the experience.