The post Sundance Review: Karen Gillan Faces Herself in Riley Stearns’ Deadpan Dual appeared first on Consequence.
This review is part of our coverage of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.
The Pitch: Sarah (Karen Gillan) is dying of a rare, incurable disease. It’s no big shakes, though, because up to now she hasn’t really lived: she has a strained, distant relationship with her boyfriend (Beulah Koale), her mother is disapproving, and she can’t even be bothered to cry when she receives her prognosis. Still, she unthinkingly accepts an offer to go through the process of “replacement”: growing a clone of her that will learn the ins and outs of her life, then take over when she dies.
But ten months of watching her double (also Gillan, obviously) insinuate herself into her life, Sarah learns that she’s making a full recovery. But she’s got two problems: a) her boyfriend and family like the double more than they like her, and b) the government won’t allow two versions of the same person to live. So, per the letter of the law, they’re set to duel to the death one year hence.
The Art of Self-Defense: Riley Stearns‘ oddball sensibilities have stood out since his acerbic 2019 dark comedy The Art of Self-Defense; there’s always something off about the worlds he creates, from the monotone cadence of his characters to the strangely analog worlds they inhabit. In Dual, Stearns takes another jaundiced look at a lost character seeking self-actualization through the holy crucible of combat. But this time, rather than poking at the scabs of toxic masculinity, he turns his eye to the very notion of finding a sense of purpose in life in the first place.
The results are deliciously off-kilter, even if the sci-fi world Stearns has created is somewhat clumsily reverse-engineered to make his central premise possible. (If replacement is so easy and commonplace, wouldn’t the Earth’s population just explode with clones after a while?)
Still, that just contributes to the stilted, sometimes alien worlds Stearns creates for his characters. Despite theoretically being set in a future where cloning is simple as pie, aesthetics remain old-fashioned: Gillan’s phone has an MS-DOS-like interface, and a hilariously po-faced training video feels ripped right out of a ’90s VHS. If Napoleon Dynamite were less cutesy and more murder-y, it might look a little like Dual.
Why Aren’t I Crying? It’s always nice to see Karen Gillan in something outside of the A-list blockbuster set, and boy, what a showcase Dual is for her talents as both a physical performer and a vehicle for dramedic pathos. There’s something of Nebula here in Sara’s unblinking, matter-of-fact delivery, her gangly limbs always searching for the right way to stand, sit, or pose. Like Eisenberg in Art of Self-Defense, she’s meek, avoidant, the kind of woman who feels like she’s given up on her own life before it’s begun. When she learns that she’s suffering from a rare disorder, she can’t even bring herself to weep.
But ironically enough, her miraculous recovery (and the impending challenge of killing her clone) lights a fire under her, one stoked by the “personal combat trainer” (Aaron Paul) she hires to get her into fighting shape for the duel.
It’s really something to watch Gillan work, calibrating the action-movie bona fides she’s cultivated over a decade of Marvel movies and stuff like Gunpowder Milkshake into something far more precise and calculating. Whether she’s modulating her Disney-huge eyes to size up her double’s motivations, or doggedly limping across a football field in one gut-bustlingly sustained long shot, Gillan says more with her physicality than so many of her contemporaries can pull off with a two-page monologue.
I’m Going to Fucking Abort You! It’s this middle act where Dual really gets going, as Paul’s Trent sternly prepares Sara’s mind, body, and spirit for the task with all the intensity of a Cobra Kai sensei. His conviction is compounded tenfold by the absurdity of his tasks, from forcing Sara to stab a silhouetted body target with a mirror where its head should be to a half-speed rehearsal of the duel itself. (Their half-lidded play by play as they describe each action and its consequence — “Ow. I’m less mobile now.” — is a deadpan masterwork.)
But Dual‘s commitment to keeping its audience on its toes can eventually bite it in the ass, and the third act is where some of Stearns’ narrative hopscotch can lose you. Soon enough, Sara’s double (helpfully named “Sara’s Double” until one of them dies and she can be the true Sara) comes to her with an alternative, even taking her to a support group of duel survivors so they can really wrestle with the consequence of what they’re doing.
Is it a real attempt at detente, or is it a ploy? The answer is a bit of an anticlimax, considering everything we’ve been leading up to. And yet, Stearns twists the knife with a pair of closing shots that further complicate the film’s existing complications about who gets to live your life, and whether that life’s even worth living.
The Verdict: Dual doesn’t quite reach the satirical heights of Art of Self-Defense — hopefully next film, Stearns (who himself is a brown belt in jiu-jitsu) will steer away from fractured sensei-student relationships — but it’s still a killer vehicle for his uniquely confident voice. He’s clearly interested in the fractured niceties of our modern world, and what happens when you strip the affect from them and leave people scrambling for purpose.
For Eisenberg, it’s the sense of misplaced machismo he gets from a controlling sensei. For Gillan in Dual, it’s the prospect of having the life you take for granted stolen from you, and being given the chance to fight for it.