Sundance Film Festival Review – Does “Dual” Duel Itself?

Sundance Film Festival Review – Does “Dual” Duel Itself?
Aaron Paul and Karen Gillan appear in <i>DUAL</i> by Riley Stearns, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute. All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

Ask me what my favorite films are and eventually- when I want to throw in some more modern choices – I’ll bring up Duncan Jones’s 2009 debut, Moon. With more than one layer to it, I always try to boil it down the philosophical journey of Moon into a signal sentence; “would you get along with yourself, if you met yourself?” While Riley Stearns’s new film Dual also explores more aspects of the clone dilemma it is hard not to think of it as an unintentional companion piece to the Jones masterpiece.

Diagnosed with what she is told is an uncurable disease, Sarah (Karen Gillan) goes through the process of having herself cloned. The service is available for those who know they are dying, to bring in a replacement to help their family and loved ones keep them in their lives. After months of training her replacement to be just like her, Sarah learns her health statis has changed, and she will in fact, not die. While the new Sarah is cozying into her new life, original Sarah starts the process to have her double, “decommissioned.” But, bureaucracy is as bureaucracy does, and Sarah’s double files a suit that would allow her to live. However, two Sarah’s are not allowed to exist. So, by the letter of the law, the two will duel to the death in a year’s time, leaving only one Sarah alive.

As deadpan and aloof as Riley Stearns’ earlier works have been, Dual very much feels like Moon by way of Yorgos Lathimos. There is a very dry and quirky sense of dark humor delivered via robotic, almost feelingless dialogue rhythms. There are loads of audiences who have recently discovered the English language films of Lathimos who love his work, but still find themselves lost by his character’s off beat ways of talking. If you’ve felt that way about films like The Lobster/ The Killing of a Sacred Dear. You’re going to feel the same way about Dual. Personally, I find it oddly endearing and the back and forths between Gillan and Aaron Paul (who plays the person training original Sarah for her duel) are pitch perfect.

Dual moves swiftly and doesn’t get itself bogged down by over explanation or off-shoots of expositions dumps. But in some ways, this also leads to its only detriment. The film feels like it got too caught up in its own story, that the deeper meanings behind the tragic situations feel thin in their exploration. There is clearly an overarching dive into depression and the search for a meaning to one’s life that unfold as we watch Sarah deal with this unusual situation. And these themes are not left open and unresolved, but as one piece of a larger mental puzzle reveals itself, another part slides in that doesn’t totally connect.

Some people might have some issues with the light nature in which suicide is treated at points in the film. While I’m not personally bothered by it, it just adds a bit to that disconnected nature of what the movie is ultimately trying to say. Before she learns she is sick, Sarah is clearly in a spiral of depression. And it effect her reactions to her initial diagnosis. But, her ultimate battle in this film is about her wanting to live, even if she doesn’t quite know what it is for. That is still an interesting look at the cycle of mental illness.

However, there is a smaller and clear sub-plot of a lot of double’s who end up dealing with the grief of loosing their original’s to suicide, that in turn puts them in their own depression spiral. At the end of the day, there is a slight inference that is trying to imply that there is an inherent part of us that can never really break out of that cycle. But again, as the film dives deeper and deeper into its plot, it feels like the grander message feels lost. Though, even with that all sounding like a downer, and the film ending on such a note; it is a highly enjoyable venture.

There are times you have to look at the world and say, “this place is just ridiculous.” Putting that notion on to the screen without the end result being a joke, is a tough job. Stearns definitely succeeds in putting that mirror up to such a strange world we currently live in, while also putting together an engaging story. Not everything that has to be depressing and sad, even when exploring depressions and sadness.

Final Grade: B+


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