Existential dread is the primary fuel for Riley Stearns’ Dual, a dark comedy about doubling. It’s the writer-director’s follow-up to his modest cult hit, The Art of Self-Defense. Ironically shot in Finland, a country which consistently tops The World Happiness Report, Dual’s characters are miserable. Their torment, however, is our amusement—the insecurity of the characters mirror nothing so much as our own.
Karen Gillan plays Sarah, a thirtysomething woman who learns she has a terminal illness, and elects to replace herself with a double so that her boyfriend (Beulah Koale) and mother (Maija Paunio) don’t suffer too much in her absence. Through some unspecified miracle of scientific advancement, the cloning process, while pricey, takes about as much time as it does to roast a chicken. While her doppelganger assimilates into her original’s existence, Sarah miraculously recovers and wants her life—and her boyfriend—back. Her clone protests and the only remaining option is a public, court-mandated duel in which only one of them will emerge alive. The winner gets to be Sarah for the rest of her life.
Part of the fun is trying to figure out in which country and at what time the events are taking place. Tiptoeing up to the edge of sci-fi, the world building is as reserved as the characters. The glib premise is enlivened by Stearns’ spare, precise shooting style and rigid control of his actors’ performances. Drained of all emotion, Gillan’s belligerent, monotonous delivery harmonizes nicely with the quirky dialogue. And her sessions with her combat trainer (Aaron Paul) have a pleasingly crisp rhythm to them. A former jiu-jitsu student, Stearns clearly enjoys indulging in an array of sports cliches, daring the audience to invest emotionally in the looming climactic battle.
Creeping underneath the surface eccentricities are anxious, philosophically loaded questions about compassion, individuality, and the nasty, brutish shortness of life. The opening scene—depicting a duel between inconsequential characters—is sufficiently violent in concept and execution to convey our natural fear of death. And even if the ending is simultaneously predictable and overly tricky, what precedes it is intriguing and confident enough to satisfy the skeptical viewer. It never reaches the poetic heights of, say, Jacques Rivette’s Duelle, which pits a mythical Queen of the Night against the Queen of the Sun. Then again, few films do, let alone try.
Dual premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year and is available in theaters, on AMC+, and on demand via various digital platforms.