Sarah is having a bad week.
She is drinking too much generic whiskey, watching too much, highly specific, pornography, actively ignoring her mother, and generally on the outs with her boyfriend. Then she is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Her doctor tells her that her survival chances are zero, with a two percent margin or error tacked on, only because policy says they have to. But it is zero. There are options, however, such as the new cloning procedure which offers those in Sarah’s circumstances the opportunity to groom a cancer-free copy of herself as a replacement after she is gone. Some clones get along with their original, and they have a special kind of friendship, share the moment as it were, until the life hand-off. Sarah’s double is not one of those. Thus begins a passive-aggressive fight between Sarah-original and Sarah-prime, over, well, her, their, life. Further complications ensue.
The strange delights on display in Riley Stearns’ third feature, Dual, are many. It has a dead-pan vibe that is very much his own, right down to its particular tempo and rhymes. There is a meticulous push-pull of embracing and subverting expectations, which he has been refining throughout his career — starting with the two-shot short, The Cub, escalating dramatically with religious deprogramming psychodrama Faults, and cresting through a satire of misogyny and martial arts and dark-confidence in The Art of Self Defense. I would say every film of his is the most underrated film of their release year. And, I understand that not everyone can completely tune into his peculiar wavelength, which is particularly narrow, but pitch perfect. He is an acquired taste, and it is probably umami, the one that everyone seems to forget exists, but is secretly the best of them; both comforting, quietly intense, and strange like a bowl of Ramen loaded with exotic mushrooms, or a cold, acid-rich Kimchi. I will stop mixing metaphors.
For example, there is a shot in the film; it must last close to 60 seconds or more, of a character simply walking across a football field. The angle at which the shot is acute, and yet is framed is almost like a diopter split; a paradox and yet satisfying. It allows the particular situation, which has been building the entire film, to last and last, like Hitchcock’s bomb that does not goes off. If you love filmmaking language and grammar as a tool for humour, think Edgar Wright (Hot Fuzz) or Quentin Dupieux (Wrong), Stearns has you more than covered. His endgame has the goal to upset, or at least nudge, the audience, and then see if he can find his way out of a narrative predicament with a good visual joke. One that is both funny, and dramatic, at the same time. Several people, ostensibly there to help, when not being that at all, begin their pitch with, “For Example.” The film was shot in Finland, but seems to be set just in the suburbs of Vancouver; both universally vague, and yet seemingly hyper-specific, for example.
When Sarah wants out of the whole clone-replacement contractual corporate mess she is mired in (she has to pay her double’s living expenses when she cannot even afford her own) the legally mandated solution is a dual to the death with her double. This leads to the films perfect title, and best pun. Dual, of course, has a duel…i mean, dual…meaning. The film could perhaps have been called Duel to the same effect, but Spielberg might come out, ceasing and desisting, at the appropriation of his 1971 debut. (Come to think of it, Dennis Weaver in that film looks a bit like Leland Orser, the lead in Faults, but I digress.) Early in the film, there is a Jurassic Park meets Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind ‘corporate explainer video,’ that embraces, and savages, this kind of science-fictiony exposition, even as it pays tribute. Embrace Stearns’ contradictions, this is how the game is played.
Either way, Karen Gillan (absent blue make-up from Guardians of the Galaxy) is a blast playing both versions of Sarah, and making you not like either of them in each of their own particular ways. It’s both a physical and a robotic performance. By Design. By the end, I was rooting for both of them to find a solution to their predicament, even as they constantly re-evaluate their situation. Both set out to use their skill sets to train for the upcoming (but still year away) battle for Sarah’s not-particularly-spectacular life. Sarah-original finds a weapons trainer (Aaron Paul, playing charmingly against type), while Sarah-prime plays the emotional, family and boyfriend angle.
During the lead-up to the show-down, we get to peep around the corners of Stearns’ near-future dystopia, which is less Nineteen Eighty-Four (or Battle Royale) and more Department of Motor Vehicles queuing line (or edgy-bargain exercise video). I mean all of this as a high compliment. The particular way that Sarah’s bureaucratic consultations are weaponized, both literally and figuratively, for silent chuckles (with a 2 percent margin of error) while Sarah’s weapons training is used to confront anxiety issues, is both subversive and brilliant. So is Dual. Go see it. Particularly, so are all of Riley Stearns films. Go see the others too.
(Yes I used word particular, far too many times, deal with it; but it is, indeed, that kind of movie, and that kind of rhythm.)