Dual Synopsis: Upon receiving a terminal diagnosis, Sarah opts for a cloning procedure to ease her loss on her friends and family. When she makes a sudden and miraculous recovery, her attempts to decommission her clone fail, leading to a court-mandated duel to the death. Now, she has one year to train her mind and body for the fight of her life.
If surviving a terminal diagnosis wasn’t enough, Sarah must now battle with a clone version set out to replace her in Dual. Dredging in the dark crevices of humanity through high-concept premises has become a specialty for writer/director Riley Stearns. The auteur’s first two features, Faults and the highly-underrated The Art of Self-Defense, reflect Stearns’ astute marriage of darkly comedic moments and piercing sentiments on our modern worldview.
With Dual, the writer/director’s trademark sensibilities don’t quite gel together. The film’s dystopian worldview presents intriguing societal quandaries, but Stearns struggles to explore ideas with his typical thematic bite.
Elements that felt emotionally detached yet purposeful in previous efforts feel somewhat disconnected here. Stearns crafts Dual in a similar dark comedy mold to Art of Self-Defense – an approach that leads to characters embracing the same emotionless, matter-of-fact delivery. With Dual, Stearns’ tonal delivery lands with stilted awkwardness. His dry sense of humor lacks its usual pointed perspective, with the writer/director forcing gags that feel overwritten in their deadpan design.
The stylistic pastiche also transforms his characters into vacant ciphers of his thematic conceits. It does not help that the performances struggle to unearth substance from their emotionless delivery. Karen Gillan’s dual performances as Sarah and her clone feel grounded almost exclusively in awkward mannerisms. The insular depression and underlying dread that is apparent under the surface never feels emotionally charged, with Stearns and Gillan devising the Sarahs as flat vehicles of his thematic design.
Dual struggles most at conveying a throughout thesis. I can see where Stearns intends the matter-of-fact bleakness and lack of humanity as depictions of humans’ transactional relationships and inherent selfishness. However, the dynamics never prosper into more meaningful insights. Stearns lays his dreary ideas on far too thickly, often over-extenuating himself in communicating the overwhelming hopelessness at the center of his narrative. Where the blend of humor and pointed revelations felt well-tuned in Self-Defense, the tonal hybrid approach feels like a clumsy vehicle for Dual’s intriguing idealism.
I wouldn’t call Dual a lousy film; Stearns certainly crafts his vision with confidence and technical aplomb. That said, the pieces of Stearns’ auteur perspective struggle to convey his intriguing dystopian concept. It’s a surprising misstep, but I am still excited to see what the skilled writer/director dreams up next.