Riley Stearns’ 2019 film The Art of Self Defense centered on a karate novice attempting to regain control of his life and finding something much deeper in the community he found. Now Stearns, who clearly has an interest in training and fighting, has delivered Dual, his third feature, in which he explores the harmful effects of governmental structures under the premise of a futuristic society where you can clone yourself. This structure – along with his distinct dialogue aesthetic – questions the repercussions of the violence we inflict on others, as well as the violence the world inflicts on us.
Sarah (Karen Gillan) finds out that she has a terminal illness and will almost certainly die from it. Luckily for her loved ones, there is a service that allows one to clone themselves in cases of certain death in order to spare them any sadness. In the months leading up to her supposed passing, Sarah is meant to teach her double everything she can about herself so that when she is gone, the new Sarah will slip right into her life. Yet, when she meets her copy, Sarah’s Double appears to prefer making choices for herself. This further complicates things when months later, Sarah no longer has need of her double, who has now practically stolen her life.
Stearns is known for his characters’ deadpan, monotone delivery of dialogue. This often creates opportunities for awkwardness and absurdity, which produce unique humor. Karen Gillan slides into this aesthetic seamlessly, as if this style was written directly for her. While the other actors do their best to keep up, Gillan is on another level as she plays both Sarah and Sarah’s Double, who become completely different people. Sarah herself is awkward, coming off as distant and uninterested in her life. Once she has to fight for it, however, a spark ignites in her.
A growing common theme in Stearns’s work is the idea that someone needs to prepare to fight for something. As with The Art of Self Defense, Dual turns into a story of perseverance as opposed to focusing on the sci-fi elements. This makes for a much more impactful story that allows the audience to root for someone who in the earlier minutes of the run time, might have been harder to empathize with. His employment of these themes calls into question ideas about what a life truly is. Clones of the same person can be created in this world. Does that make them subhuman to the people they are meant to replace? Or is the scope much bigger – should we be looking to the corporations and governments that allow such dilemmas to even occur? Stearns doesn’t offer easy answers to these questions. Instead, he asks the audience to interrogate that for themselves.
With an already intriguing and complex premise, the film keeps things interesting despite a slower, less action-packed pace than one might expect with this sort of plotline. Stearns does great work at subverting expectations by presenting unconventional problems and solutions. A particular highlight of the film is an unexpected dance routine featuring Karen Gillan and Aaron Paul, who plays her trainer. These unpredictable scenes work with the story, continuing to offer the humor Stearns is becoming known for. Although, some of these twists, especially pertaining to the ending, might come as a disappointment to what the film felt like it was building up to.
Dual is an entirely original film, featuring a career-best performance from Gillan. Stearns’s unique speaking style is already a distinguishing factor of his films, but his ability to create surprising scenarios and undermine expectations is a talent not many directors are exercising today. Even though the ending might disappoint some because of its unanticipated nature, it still illustrates what Stearns might be trying to interrogate about violence, and where each of us relates to that in this world.