CAST: Karen Gillan, Aaron Paul, Theo James, Beulah Koale, Maija Paunio, Sanna-June Hyde, Andrei Alén, Kristofer Gummerus
RUNNING TIME: 95 mins
BASICALLY…: After unexpectedly surviving a cancer scare, a woman (Gillan) must prepare to fight her clone to the death…
NOW FOR THE REVIEW…
Remember that movie Swan Song from late last year, which saw Mahershala Ali have himself cloned to spare his loved ones from the pain of grief? Now imagine if that film was more like The Lobster by way of The Hunger Games (and, instead of Ali, it was a former Doctor Who companion) and you should have a pretty good idea of what exactly Dual is.
The latest slice of deadpan dark comedy from writer-director Riley Stearns – whose previous feature, The Art of Self-Defense, was as intriguing a sit as it was an uncomfortable one – shares only that basic premise with the Apple TV+ melodrama, but still manages to take it into considerably strange directions that, much like Yorgos Lanthimos’ divisive comedy, is all but guaranteed to split opinion despite offering some bright satire on the mediated state of the world around us.
The film follows Sarah (Karen Gillan), a depressed woman in an unhappy relationship with her boyfriend Peter (Beulah Koale) and is unable to stand her intrusive mother (Maija Paunio). One day, she receives the devastating news that she is suffering from a rare, terminal illness which she has a 2% chance of surviving; not to worry, she is told, for this is a world where dying people are given the opportunity to have themselves cloned and replaced by a healthy exact duplicate of themselves, which Sarah quickly decides to take up. Sarah’s clone (also Gillan) is thus created and embedded into Sarah’s normal life, but all of a sudden the original Sarah learns that she has miraculously been cured of her illness, while the clone isn’t keen on being decommissioned. Thus, as stated by law, both Sarahs must engage in a televised fight to the death where only one may emerge victorious as the sole Sarah, and so the original enlists personal trainer Trent (Aaron Paul) to train her during the year leading to her decisive battle.
Between The Art of Self-Defense and now Dual, Stearns has certainly established himself as a stoic narrative voice that is extremely blunt and straightforward, often to disarmingly comedic effect. However, the severe dryness of his dialogue and direction can be off-putting to viewers hoping for a more cathartic and even emotional experience, something that is noticeably absent within the numerous scenes of actors delivering long-winded descriptive lines with little emotion to speak of. I’m in two minds over this style of deadpan humour; while it’s an interesting approach to an out-there concept such as this wherein the absurdity of it all is treated with nonchalant matter-of-factness as all the other mundane facts of life, there should also be something within this universe for the viewer to connect with, as a means to actually be emotionally invested in things. In Dual, there is not a whole lot to carry itself outside of the oddball plot, particularly in terms of characters worth becoming interested in, or dialogue that has a personality beyond stating the obvious in the driest way possible. With little else for the viewer to attach itself to, the film can feel like an obligatory watch, fuelled by curiosity more than anything, rather than an actual desire to learn more about this world and its strangely emotionless inhabitants.
If Stearns is not the most emotional storyteller in the world (often to a fault), he does at least have some interesting ideas which are introduced, but not always followed up on, through the movie’s satirical edge. The idea of pitting people against each other for the sake of televised entertainment is, of course, hardly a new concept, but the added passiveness to which people respond to it here does raise some concerning questions about the oversaturated media landscape we reside in, in this case being one where even a bloody duel to the death between two identical people doesn’t even raise an eyebrow amongst society. Stearns, however, rarely goes deeper than the mere presentation of the ideas, with the duel itself and all that it suggests being relegated to a mere afterthought in order to make room for more blunt, dry dialogue delivered by actors who have clearly been instructed to just speak the lines without much emotional infliction.
The whole thing is an uneven bag, certainly filled with some intriguing ideas which aren’t explored as deep as the filmmaker allows himself to go, leading to an anticlimactic resolution which, unlike the similarly feeble (but much funnier) conclusion to The Art of Self-Defense, just leaves you mostly unsatisfied – so it’s only right that this review also ends just as abruptly.
SO, TO SUM UP…
Dual contains some interesting ideas within its satirical depiction of a mediated dystopia, but most of them are rarely explored deeper than the surface in a wildly uneven deadpan comedy that features disappointingly few things to connect with, leaving the viewer left to face an endless onslaught of dry dialogue and deliveries without much purpose other than to just be dry.