Directed By Riley Stearns
Starring – Karen Gillan, Aaron Paul, Beulah Koale
The Plot – A woman (Gillan) opts for a cloning procedure after she receives a terminal diagnosis but when she recovers her attempts to have her clone decommissioned fail, leading to a court-mandated duel to the death.
Rated R for violent content, some sexual content, adult language and graphic nudity
“Dual” is a creative return to form for Stearns, whose thematic ambitions here pertaining to everything from existentialism to self-appreciation, to even tribulations with depression, are realized with a grounded execution that easily attains an audience on many alluring aspects within its unique personality. The most easily distinguishable on that front is definitely Stearns’ signature deadpan deliveries, which feel like a palpable combination of Yorgos Lanthimos and Wes Anderson’s finest qualities. Here once more, Riley takes a hefty subject in the form of death and ensuing grief and fleshes it out with an underlining morbidity that not only continuously tickles the tummy for the bluntness in honesty that stings from its sociological and economical deconstructions, but also one that plays terrifically towards the tonal consistencies of the film, which persist without alienating the fear of the inevitability that stems from our protagonist’s perspective. That protagonist is Sarah, played wonderfully here from Gillian, with a dry consistency in demeanor that might test certain audiences, while impress others who have felt the same suffocation from internal depression that conforms her long before the appearance of her body double. Gillian’s physicality and overall transformation are easily expected as one of Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, but it’s the underlining tenderness and vulnerability that Karen supplants her that is most endearing, with many bombshells and revelations humbling her to the point of internal agony, which we rarely experience but often feel because of Gillian’s impeccable range conveying a tiptoe of trepidation across a bed of proverbial nails supplied by the various betrayals in her life she has succumbed to. Stearns humor is certainly par for the course here, but the subtleties in presentation are equally precise, channeling the internal mundanity of Sarah’s remorseful remaining days with an intentionally bland color pallet, intruding editing techniques, and a scheme in cinematography from Stearns collaborator Michael Ragen, that seems to expand and excite with the parallel timing of Sarah’s second wind for life. When the film begins, the angles and movements are very dull in their lifeless representation, with slow pans guiding us towards surrounding shallow waters, but as the film transitions to the more enthusiastic second half, it gives in to some of the more energetic urges that would’ve initially felt improper, but when placed here blaze the path to the few sequences of physicality and one toe-tapping dance number to Lil Jon and The Eastside Boyz “Get Low” that like Sarah’s demeanor minutes earlier, didn’t even feel possible. I love the decision to limit fight sequences for this film, even if it has a compromising effect on the movie’s finale, which I will get to later, because it proves that Stearns isn’t just a one-punch performer with respect to his previous two films, which used brutality as a means to end toxic masculinity and manipulative influence. Here, that occasion does periodically pop into focus, but I love that here Riley’s screenwriting capabilities defined the occasion, choosing instead to entice with his endless wit and eye-opening social commentary, which point to more than a few unnerving instances of ironies about the way we as a society approach the grieving process, and how we remove focus from the plagued to puff the pundits who rarely if ever have our best interests at heart.
Though this is what I consider to be Stearns most creatively ambitious film to date, the ability of tackling so much with a 90-minute run time condenses matters in a way that is almost completely compromising on the integrity of the film. This is most noticeably felt on the ensuing pathos of the movie’s ambiguous world-building, which never feels the need to explain the science or the possibilities of how something so morbid can exist in a society that looks and feels closely to ours in 2022, but also the flatness in characterization, with no limit of problems in its own influence. This is where the film didn’t pull from me the investment and command that it so evidently required, as the surface level delve in Sarah’s backstory mostly brings to light even more questions about her own personal choices, and little to no clarity of coherence to illustrate the loss of the person she was before life became too much for her. As for the aforementioned world-building, the periodic clues of exposition drawing on deeper meaning during sporadic conversations was a touch I couldn’t be happier with, but the clues of convenience never blazed a trail to immersive enveloping, instead outlining a parody of a world that is fine for the comedic relevance of the script, but not necessarily one that is close enough in proximity for all audiences to draw upon in their own brushes with post-mortem grief. Beyond this, I also found problems with the consistency of Stearns’ uniquely emotionless personality on the majority of the supporting ensemble. It’s fine when it’s unloaded on Sarah, who should be presented as the outcast both visually and emotionally in her own society, but when everyone else talks and reacts in the exact same manner as her, it removes the internal isolation of the character that should be easily identifiable in an environment that continuously shuns her, but instead cements a consistency of vapidness that doesn’t spring its appeal in her will to live, nor enhance any of her prominent life figures with even a two-dimensional range of relatability. Finally, the film is saddled with an underwhelming ending that springs forth as a result of a non-existent climax and following credits-crawl that screams inevitable disappointment. When I say the film’s closing moments are underwhelming, I mean that they took my grade down an entire point by not even confronting the one thing it sold throughout the plot and ensuing trailers of the film’s marketing campaign. I can appreciate an ending that subverts the expectations of a confrontation that can really only go two directions, but predictability would be better than what we’re left with, especially with that overwhelming rock of discontent in both the closing moments and character resolutions settling its way into our throats.
Stearns once again calls on originality to sell an introspectively invigorating experience into another of life’s plaguing vulnerabilities, this time with a two-for-one performance from Gillian commanding her most precise emotional work to date. Yet despite this, the film’s biggest “Dual” is the one it faces with itself, with abruptly brisk scene-halting pacing and surface level summoning disarming it with the kind of disconnect that immediately puts it at a disadvantage against an audience already expecting so much from a visionary who previously conjured two of their year’s best in “The Art of Self-Defense” and “Faults”.
My Grade: 7/10 or C+