Back in 2019, I went to see the film The Art of Self-Defense in theaters. It was on a whim, and I went in knowing very little about it. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it, and was impressed by the writing and direction from Riley Stearns. His dark, dry brand of humor really connected with me, and the film itself ended up being one of my favorites of the year. I had no idea who Stearns was before I saw the film, but after watching The Art of Self-Defense, I knew that I would be first in line for whatever film he made next. As luck would have it, I was able to watch the world premiere of his latest film Dual at Sundance, and it did not disappoint.
In this film, a young woman named Sarah is suffering from a mysterious terminal illness decides to undergo a procedure where she is cloned. This process is called Replacement, and is meant to ease the pain of loss for her loved ones. However, when she makes a miraculous recovery, she tries to undo the process, but her clone has other plans. The two then must prepare for a duel to the death, where only one will remain. The film largely deals with Sarah's preparation for the duel, and her fight to regain control of her life.
While that description might sound rather serious, Stearns manages to find a way to weave his brand of humor into the film. The deadpan delivery of the characters, mixed with the dark comedy feels very reminiscent of the work of Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos. This is a common comparison for Stearns, as his previous films share similarities with Lanthimos's films. Dual feels somewhat similar to Lanthimos's The Lobster, in that both have high-concept plots, and mix elements of sci-fi, drama, and comedy. Both Stearns and Lanthimos seem to create worlds that feel a couple of steps removed from our reality. This film feels like it takes place in a strange alternate reality, as it has elements that feel plausible, while still leaning into sci-fi territory. It's a strange blend that may alienate some, but I was really taken by the world and story that Stearns has created here.
Stearns's direction is quite strong, as he feels so assured, and makes a film that seeks to challenge and unnerve its audience. He shows such control over the tone of the film, and blends everything together in a more effective way than one might expect. The film is rather tense, yet Stearns knows when to break it up with some humor. Furthermore, the deadpan way that most of the characters talk add to the unsettling feeling of the film that he is trying to cultivate. As for the script, it's mostly solid, as Stearns allows the story to unfold in an unexpected way, and works with some interesting ideas. I feel that it takes a strange turn near the end that I'm a little mixed on, and leads to a rather melancholy ending. I can see what Stearns is going for, but I'm not sure if it fully works here.
The standout element of the film for me is Karen Gillan's phenomenal performances as Sarah and her double. She fully commits to the specific style of Stearns's work, and while she appears to be a bit more stoic, she allows just enough emotionality to slip through the cracks. Also great is Aaron Paul as her combat trainer. He has a slightly showier performance, but he nails every scene he is in. There is one particular scene with him and Gillan that made me laugh out loud because of how surprising it was given the context, but I won't spoil that here.
I also greatly appreciated Emma Ruth Rundle's score, which matches the tense nature of the film so well, and features such effective use of electronic elements. The score itself is used perfectly throughout the film, and is an early contender for one of my favorite scores of the year. I also felt that Michael Ragen's camerawork was quite good, especially in the film's opening sequence. I also loved how he used the film's cooler color palette to his advantage, and how he uses the stillness of the camera to add to the tension of the film. These elements work so well in tandem with Stearns's direction, and create an experience that really hit me on a deep level.
This is one of those films that I really needed the time to sit with and process. In fact, there's still elements of the film that I'm still sorting through as I write this review. It feels like there's something I'm missing that keeps me from liking this film more than I do, but that being said, I still greatly enjoyed this film. It is so well-crafted, and takes risks that will likely not sit well with some people. Stearns's style is just so fascinating, and connects with some of my sensibilities as a film lover. This film is likely to be polarizing, especially given how it ends, but I am definitely more positive on this one. It's a bit of a perplexing watch, but it is intriguing to see Stearns both refining his style and trying new things in the process. I'm curious to see what others think, but as for me, this is one of the first films I've seen this year that really stunned me.