It’s no coincidence that writer-director Riley Stearns’ anti-fantasy “Dual” feels like it belongs in the midnight movie section of a prestigious film festival. Stearns’ first two projects, “Faults” and “The Art of Self-Defense,” were embraced by SXSW audiences, and this one premiered at Sundance a few months ago.
But as is so often the case with edgier festival fare, what feels thrilling among like-minded fans winds up deflating upon arrival.
Stearns’ first two movies earned their adoration the hard way, challenging audiences with pitch-black humor and an off-kilter tone. While “Dual” goes for the jugular as well, it doesn’t cut nearly as deep.
Karen Gillan fans may be delighted to find her in the titular role, as both Sarah and Sarah’s Double. The former is a sad-sack human who learns that she has a rare disease, leaving her only a year to live. Out of curiosity (or maybe boredom, since that appears to be her primary mode), she accepts a doctor’s suggestion that she purchase a clone to keep her loved ones from imminent heartbreak.
Given that Sarah has only two people in her life — a mother she doesn’t like, and a boyfriend who doesn’t like her — the fact that she spends her last days and limited money creating a doppelgänger comes across as one of many illogical or unformed conceits. Nevertheless, she spits into a cup, signs some forms, and Sarah’s Double is produced. There’s been a bit of a glitch, though, and the clone who is meant to seamlessly replace her wants, instead, to supersede her.
As Sarah is reeling from this twist, she gets another: she might just live after all. But since there can be only one Sarah, the government requires the two women to duel to the death. We learn briefly that these fights are televised for entertainment but, typically for the script’s halfhearted energy, this nod towards social satire is never fleshed out further.
From here, Sarah spends the next year training with Trent (Aaron Paul), growing ever more determined to destroy a double who’s hellbent on doing the same to her. But…why? Has Sarah suddenly discovered a zest for life? If so, we don’t see any evidence of it. She’s still just as bland, only now she’s bland and in training, instead of bland and moping around her house. (The film was shot in Finland but stripped of any identifying details; the generic blankness of Sarah’s life is as soul-deadening as it gets.)
Stearns has a distinctly poker-faced style that has earned him comparisons to early Yorgos Lanthimos. But in relying so much on Sarah’s flat affect and the film’s visually and thematically chilly tone, he’s given neither his movie a reason to move forward nor his audience reason to care.
Because he appears more fleetingly, Paul is able to tap into the self-consciously stilted dialogue and delivery, making his intermittent appearances bleakly amusing. Awkward interactions with Sarah’s bluntly tactless doctor (June Hyde) are also entertaining. Since Sarah never really grows, though, what should feel deadpan too often comes across as merely monotonous.
We can see and even appreciate Stearns’ spiky cultural commentary, and “Dual” might have made for a promising “Black Mirror” episode. Or, with less space to fill and more need for precision, it could have been a very strong short. But ultimately the movie asks a lot of us, while simultaneously withholding too much. The concept remains compelling, but the execution both figuratively and literally falls flat.
“Dual” opens in US theaters April 15 and on VOD May 20.