REVIEW: Dual [2022]

Rating: 6 out of 10.
  • Rating: R | Runtime: 95 minutes
    Release Date: April 15th, 2022 (USA)
    Studio: RLJE Films
    Director(s): Riley Stearns
    Writer(s): Riley Stearns

Why aren’t I crying?

Sarah (Karen Gillan) is depressed. While it initially seems the result of loneliness created by her live-in boyfriend’s (Beulah Koale‘s Peter) absence with a lengthy out-of-town work effort, she’s been retreating from the world for quite some time now. Small things like not wanting to answer the phone when her mother (Maija Paunio) calls to “chat.” Big things like not wanting to leave the house and socialize with people when staying home and watching television is enough. So, when Sarah finds out she’s sick courtesy of waking to a pool of blood in bed, it’s not surprising that Peter casually explains how he won’t be able to comfort her at the hospital. Not only is he busy, but he’s also having fun for the first time in ages.

We realize this truth through a smile—the only one Peter lets brighten his face during multiple Skype calls with Sarah. It’s not from seeing her. It’s not something she said. It’s a text received from an employee that had recently been flirting with getting fired due to a lack of understanding the job. Apparently, he’s Peter’s best worker now and the two have become fast friends. Thinking about the laughs they just had before sending him home in a cab sparks a joy that Sarah simply can’t. And she can feel it. She struggles to embrace her emotions, often deciding that an acknowledgement of them isn’t worth the trouble when apathy proves so much easier. She doesn’t even cry when told her illness is terminal. Why bother?

As a result, Riley StearnsThe Art of Self-Defense looks like a broad comedy when compared to Dual. This thing is so dry that I found myself unable to laugh at the simplest of gags. When Sarah goes to the gym and jumps on a treadmill, no one is around her. Suddenly a guy arrives and turns on the unit right beside her while she glances left and right to see all the empty machines he could have chosen instead. It’s a tried-and-true scenario begging for a chuckle and yet its delivery, when coupled by the delivery of everything that occurred previous (see Sarah telling the ER nurse her ailment isn’t urgent seconds before puking blood onto the floor), made me squirm instead. I braced for potential tragedy.

It’s why I loved Self-Defense and to a lesser extent the more dramatic (and even better) Faults. Stearns’ scripts are ruthless with their characters, fearlessly putting them in awkward and insane scenarios to let them react in equally off-putting ways. We aren’t supposed to like any of them because empathy only gets in the way of expectations. By drawing flawed people, Stearns can provide a comedically pitch-black window onto our flawed world. I do wonder, however, if he may have leaned too hard into it this time. Rather than merely watching as characters suffocate on-screen, I found myself suffocating in my chair too. It’s a fine line and a huge fall if not balanced perfectly. While he doesn’t quite hit the ground here, he definitely slips.

That’s not to say that what he’s doing isn’t intentional. It most certainly is. Everyone is dialed to eleven on the cringe scale with selfishness replacing sympathy as a rule. Even Sarah’s decision to undergo “replacement” is selfish despite the tagline promising a “gift for your loved ones.” She doesn’t consult Peter or her mother when agreeing to pay for a clone (“done in an hour”) that can fill her shoes when she dies because that would mean opening herself up to their emotions as well as hers. By doing this, she can keep them all bottled up—avoid them completely in a way that allows her peace of mind regardless of the chaos it may create in her absence. There’s even more chaos if she remains.

As an opening prologue pitting Robert Michaels (Theo James) against himself in a duel to the death that’s broadcast on TV in front of a live audience promises, Sarah’s choice gets much more interesting if she somehow survives. The ethics behind cloning demand stipulations in the event something unplanned occurs. While legal to clone yourself upon a death sentence, two versions of you cannot exist together for an extended period of time. Hence the duel clause. If an original no longer needs their double, that double must be decommissioned. If that double has lived long enough to begin creating an identity for him/herself, however, they have the right to petition for their continued existence. They’ll each get five weapons and a one-hundred-yard gap. The victor earns “original” status.

There have been a ton of works with similar thematic elements of late (“Solos”, Swan Song, and “Severance” come to mind), so execution and tone are crucial to setting Dual apart. Stearns does a great job adapting the concept to his style and this dark, violent angle is a real showstopper on paper too. So, why do we never see Robert Michaels again? Why does Stearns decide to use the most kinetic and captivating bit of his premise as an appetizer before presenting a more staid main course? I’m sure there are a lot of reasons from budgetary to COVID (the film was shot in Finland after their first two pandemic-safety choices fell through) to intent. It’s not about the violence or rage. It’s about our unavoidable futility.

Neither Sarah is wrong for wanting to live. Neither is right for wanting to kill the other to do so. The truth of the matter is that what we fight for often proves not worth fighting for at all. Sarah isn’t happy. She accepts her impending demise sight unseen and her duel trainer (an underused yet effective Aaron Paul) doesn’t even believe she wants to live upon their initial meeting. So, who’s to say surviving will make her happy? Who’s to say Sarah’s Double will be able to take the exact same elements that made her original depressed and somehow make them work? Their mutual excitement and ambition are for an idea rather than a tangible prize. They want to win even if what they’re winning is misery.

That astutely bleak observation pulled me through because it’s the type of commentary we need in our art at a moment in time where escapist fantasies rule the box office. I don’t think Stearns has quite the same grasp on how to express it as he did with his previous two films, but his off-beat humor and biting satire shine through anyway. I think Gillan might be too robotic (Self-Defense works because they’re all odd, not emotionless), but I get why Stearns pushed her there. Her interaction with many scenes unfortunately renders them as skits rather than pieces of a cohesive whole because of it, though. Training therefore feels like filler. Thankfully the ending rights the ship—even if doing so makes that filler seem even less important.

courtesy of RLJE Films

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