Aaron Paul and Karen Gillan appear in DUAL by Riley Stearns, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.
After receiving a terminal diagnosis, Sarah commissions a clone of herself to ease the loss for her friends and family. When she makes a miraculous recovery, her attempt to have her clone decommissioned fails, and leads to a court-mandated duel to the death. (Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival.)
Some movies can successfully coast on an intriguing, solidly executed premise regardless of how strong the script is or how well everything comes together. And Dual is one of those movies. Written and directed by Riley Stearns, Dual is a tense, enjoyable psychological thriller. Largely carried by its immediately captivating premise, an oppressive, almost paranoid, atmosphere, and an impressive dual performance from Karen Gillan, Dual ends up being greater than the sum of its parts – despite its overwritten script.
A Compelling Premise…
After being diagnosed with a rare, terminal disease, Sarah (Karen Gillan) chooses to have a clone of herself commissioned to ease her loved ones’ heartache and pain. But when her disease goes into remission months later, she learns that she and her clone cannot both stay alive. Instead, they must fight to the death for the right to live. A feat that proves easier said than done after her clone successfully takes over every aspect of her life. An engaging premise, to be sure. And one that Stearns makes great use of – initially by playing with Sarah’s paranoia of being replaced by her clone and, later, by building up her resolve to live. So, what’s the problem? In short, it feels like Dual never trusts its audience to follow the plot without having their hands held.
…With an Over-Written Script
The movie explains every facet of its plot in such detail that it all but removes any semblance of ambiguity from the proceedings. A problem that only grows more and more noticeable as the film progresses. And ambiguity is one of the best qualities a story about clones can have. After all, half of the fun of a doppelganger story is that uncertainty as to whether or not a given character is the original or the doppelganger. Unfortunately, Dual quickly rushes through Sarah’s clone-related paranoia in favor of a more standard exploration of her fight to stay alive. It’s less of a film about losing control of your life or fearing your life’s being taken over by a malevolent force. And, instead, it’s more of a film about fighting to survive.
The first hour of the movie feels like a pretty standard fight for survival, with only a few hints of real paranoia. But then the last third starts to take a turn toward more interesting ideas. Only for those more interesting ideas to go underexplored in favor of a return back to a more standard narrative. And while there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, it does feel like a missed opportunity to say something new about this well-worn sci-fi trope. Especially since the movie comes so close to doing just that. And to make matters worse, there’s a surprising lack of nuance to both the morality of the duel and Sarah’s internal struggle. For a movie so concerned about making sure you understand what’s going on, some of that time would’ve been better spent focusing on the characters and themes.
A Great Dual Performance from Karen Gillan
With that said, all of the actors still deliver impressive performances. Much of the movie rests on Gillan’s shoulders. And she carries it remarkably. There’s a certain amount of complexity that comes with playing multiple roles. And that complexity is only increased when clones are involved. Yet, Gillan always ensures the audience can tell which character she’s playing at any moment – even though there aren’t that many scenes Sarah and her clone share. Even more impressive is the way Gillan portrays Sarah’s inner turmoil without saying a word. Especially in the film’s first act, where Gillan primarily conveys Sarah’s initial depression and illness through her physicality. Sure, her accent’s a bit questionable. And some of the more exposition-heavy dialogue does her performance no favors. But she’s easily the highlight of the film. And I only wish she’d had more opportunities to properly show off her dual roles.
Aaron Paul and Beulah Koale Deliver Solid Performances
Aside from Gillan, Aaron Paul’s Trent probably had the most screen time. And while the script doesn’t do a whole lot with the character, his rapport with Gillan is immediately electric. All of the scenes they share, with Trent helping Sarah train for her duel, are some of the most enjoyable sequences in the film. And that’s largely because of Paul’s charisma. I definitely wish the movie had done more with Trent, but Paul makes the most of the time he has. And the same is true for Beulah Koale’s Peter, too, who appears infrequently throughout the film. He fills the archetype of the not-so-great boyfriend pretty well, but I also wish he’d had more time to shine and develop past that archetype.
Unfortunately, all of the actors are burdened by some clunky, exposition-heavy dialogue. Now, I’m not normally a stickler for naturalistic dialogue. But if a lot of the dialogue feels like it doesn’t sit right in the actors’ mouths, there might be a problem. Despite that, all of the performers do a respectable job with what they’re given.
A Palpably Tense Atmosphere
Dual‘s most successful aspect is probably its atmosphere. It’s where the film comes closest to being the tense, paranoid thriller it seems to want to be. From its first frame, Dual luxuriates in a sort of off-kilter, menacing tone. And Stearns maintains that tone throughout the film. Much of the first act feels claustrophobic, as though Sarah’s world is constantly about to close in on her. But then as the film shifts away from that paranoia, the latter acts embrace a more visceral tension. Between the training sequences that grow increasingly violent to the film’s third act, which really layers on some genuine suspense at times, Dual‘s commitment to its uneasy tone never falters.
Nowhere is this tension felt more than in the scenes where Sarah and her clone interact with each other. Stearns hardly has both characters on screen at exactly the same time. But just the act of them being in the same scene as each other immediately heightens the tension. And Stearns makes good use of that. I wouldn’t say the film is ever scary. And it’s certainly not the most brutal film at Sundance this year. But visually, it still achieves a tension that the script never quite reaches. And it’s a big part of what makes the film work as well as it does.
At the end of the day, Dual delivers an enjoyable watch despite its overwritten script. The premise is so good, and Gillan’s performance is so compelling, that it’s fairly easy to overlook the script’s lack of subtlety and ambiguity. Sure, there’s a lot more the film could’ve done with its premise. And I definitely wish there’d been a bit more nuance and ambiguity to the whole thing. I wouldn’t even be surprised if some find the ending a bit of a cop-out. But for what it was going for, Dual is a pretty enjoyable watch – especially if you’re a big fan of clones and doppelgangers.
Dual had its World Premiere in the U.S. Dramatic Competition section of of Sundance Film Festival 2022.
Director: Riley Stearns
Writer: Riley Stearns
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Part-time writer, part-time theatre nerd, full-time dork.