DUAL is the latest from writer/director Riley Stearns, which came to disc this week. I checked it out because I really Iiked his last one, THE ART OF SELF-DEFENSE, which stars Jesse Eisenberg as a “35 year old dog owner” who takes up karate after being assaulted, but is not remotely the movie I’d picture when hearing that description. At the end of my review I wrote, “I really like the feel he has here – a barren, generic town, people who speak oddly, an undercurrent of danger as this strange black comedy kind of turns into a thriller. It’s very unique.”
That sounds quite a bit like this one too, despite entirely different subject matter. DUAL is about clones and is set in a casually dystopian near future (or present?), so it’s technically a sci-fi movie, but it feels like it could be the same world as the previous one. It’s got the same sort of deadpan strangeness, plainness and bone-dry, bleak humor. There’s even some combat training that takes place in a room that might as well be one of the dojos in that movie. I wondered if Stearns ever considered using Allesandro Nivola’s asshole sensei character as the trainer, then I read that Eisenberg was announced as a cast member at one point, so maybe it would’ve been him.
Karen Gillan (IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE) plays Sarah, a bored and unhappy woman. She’s introduced pausing her orgy-in-the-backyard-of-a-“confirmed-haunted-house”-porn-video for a Zoom call with her out of town boyfriend Peter (Beulah Koale, SHADOW IN THE CLOUD). Their relationship does not appear to be overflowing with passion. After she wakes up with a puddle of blood under her mouth she calmly goes to the doctor to get checked out, and when her tests come back they tell her she has an extremely rare fatal condition.
So she decides to do what most people would do: go get a “replacement” clone made so that Peter and her mom (Maija Paunio) won’t have to grieve as much. It’s a service they have now. I love the detail that she doesn’t think she can afford it until she finds out they’ll make the clone pay it off. Before dying, she has to spend time with her clone, Sarah’s Double (Karen Gillan, OCULUS), to teach her what she’s like. So she gets to see her double first enthusiastically trying to imitate her, then questioning some of her choices, both pretty disquieting in their own ways.
Like Stearns’s last one, there’s a sort of action movie type hook that’s fun but not really the point of the thing. In this case it’s that she turns out to be in remission, but you’re only allowed to have a clone if you’re dying, so she has one year to train for a televised duel to the death with Sarah’s Double. Although often depressed, she realizes she wants to live, so she hires personal combat teacher Trent, played by Aaron Paul (the guy from NEED FOR SPEED). The contrast of his squinty serious guy performance and the silliness of what he teaches is one of the more obvious jokes in the movie, but it’s a good one. After all the training the proof that she’s ready is basically like little kids playing battle – un-self-consciously moving in slow motion, miming guns, swords and grenades, excitedly describing their moves and countermoves to each other.
Much of the training is just about preparing her psychologically for violence, first by loaning her a DVD of a gory horror movie. Two points about that: #1, I appreciate that he still uses a DVD (not even a blu-ray) in the near future. #2, I respect Stearns’ discipline in not giving the movie a goofy cover but just having it in a case with the title handwritten on a piece of paper.
Trent also owns an old fashioned overhead projector and has photos printed out on transparencies. I guess this is part of Stearns’ non-futuristic future – the text on phones and computers reminds me of some ‘90s chat room. I noticed that Stearns’ last movie had audiocassettes and analog TVs and stuff, but now I realize maybe it wasn’t supposed to be the past.
I thought THE ART OF SELF-DEFENSE was an astute dissection of certain aspects of toxic masculinity. What this one is about is a little more abstract and in a way, I think, even darker. I saw it as an exploration of our relationships with our own shortcomings. Sarah has plenty of those: she drinks too much, she doesn’t notice that her boyfriend isn’t happy, she doesn’t talk to her mom (but for no reason that we know of), she doesn’t seem to have friends. And maybe I shouldn’t call this a “shortcoming,” because it could be interpreted as being somewhere on the spectrum, but she has an off-putting emotional detachment and peculiar way of speaking that contributes to her lack of human connections. She doesn’t seem like someone I would want to be around, but I like her because I strangely relate to her – she stands in for how you can feel about yourself sometimes. When you feel depressed and worthless to others but unmotivated to change.
So when she gets this other version of herself that doesn’t have some of those problems – or cellulite, she points out – I guess there are different ways to interpret what happens. Peter and Sarah’s mother both understand that Sarah’s Double is not Sarah, but both quickly become closer to the clone. She becomes the replacement before Sarah is even gone. In a sense, it shows how Sarah’s relationships might improve if she put some effort into improving some aspects of her life. On the other hand, Sarah’s Double seems judgmental and snotty toward her, so I sided with regularly un-improved Sarah, despite the obvious immorality of her casual indifference to having a woman “decommissioned.” It’s also an interesting irony that Sarah improves herself (both in matters of fitness and attitude) as a side effect of preparing to kill her improved version.
I like reading into these things – surely there is meaning to them – but also this just works on the level of absurdity. Come to think of it it reminds me a little bit of SCHIZOPOLIS, where Steven Soderbergh discovers his own double, starts following him around, and discovers his wife is having an affair with the double. The movies aren’t very similar except maybe in tone and in having a very specific sense of humor and vision of the world. It’s nice to see movies that do their own thing.
I think Gillan is really good in this, even disregarding the secondary performance as Sarah’s Double and the presumable difficulty of having to interact with herself. She finds some quiet humanity in an extremely cold and idiosyncratic character. I’m a fan of this type of movie that is so humane as to show empathy for kind of a joyless asshole like Sarah.
Stearns has an earlier movie I haven’t seen called FAULTS. So I’ll have to check that one out and then wait patiently for the next grimly humorous peek into this horrible world that I will tell myself is an exaggeration.
P.S. Chase Failey on Twitter made me realize that I never considered that this could star Jean-Claude Van Damme (as I have with other double movies like ENEMY and GEMINI MAN), so that’s a sign of how good it is.
I think the true test is did you at any time while watching the film think to yourself 'man, this would have been great with JCVD'— Chase Failey (@ChaseFailey) July 20, 2022