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Dual review: Selling the feint, awkwardly

Sometimes, a film review is a recommendation. Sometimes, it’s a warning. When it comes to Dual, the latest dark satire from writer-director Riley Stearns (The Art of Self Defense), the review can be a little bit of both.

Set in an alternate, but all-too-near future, Dual casts Guardians of the Galaxy and Doctor Who actress Karen Gillan as Sarah, an apathetic woman whose boring routine is shaken up by the revelation that she’s dying from an incurable illness with no hope of survival. This news prompts her to pursue an expensive cloning procedure intended to ease the suffering of her loved ones, but after beginning the “imprinting” process with her new clone, her illness unexpectedly goes into remission. Unable to reverse course with the clone at this late stage, she’s forced to engage in a court-mandated duel to the death with her double in order to determine which version of her is allowed to live out the rest of her life.

Karen Gillan wields a knife while lit by a red light in a scene from Dual.

If Dual seems like a high-concept story with plenty of potential for action and drama, that’s because it is — but rather than going down those thematic roads, the film opts for a more unconventional path. Instead of a sci-fi thriller or a heartwrenching emotional journey, Dual offers a sharp, satirical exploration of mortality and entertainment in the modern world, delivered with the dry, disconnected dialogue that is its filmmaker’s hallmark.

Much like Stearns’ 2019 film The Art of Self Defense, the vibe of Dual is an acquired taste, but if you can acclimate to its tone, the film manages to deliver some powerful moments within and around its monotone, stilted exchanges.

Aaron Paul and Karen Gillan discuss combat techniques in a scene from Dual.

Dual is mostly a solo performance, with Gillan playing both Sarah and her clone, but she’s joined in the cast by Breaking Bad actor Aaron Paul as the combat trainer Sarah hires to prep her to murder, well … herself. Paul throws himself into the role as much as one can with one of Stearns’ intentionally detached characters, and his sincere, fully invested performance feels like a big win for the actor. His chemistry with Gillan, particularly within the framework of Stearns’ script, is a nice surprise that adds some depth to both characters.

Playing dual roles in the film, Gillan continues to venture farther outside the range of characters and performances she’s best known for. Sarah is nothing like the women — or cyborgs or video game characters, for that matter — we’ve seen her play in the past, and it might be the biggest stretch we’ve seen her make so far in her career. It’s a successful one, too, as she manages to balance two distinct performances as the same-but-different versions of Sarah, finding little ways to give each of them a bit of nuance along the way.

That’s no easy task on its own, and her ability to do so while delivering Stearns’ robotic, unnatural dialogue speaks volumes about her talent.

DUAL - Official Trailer

How audiences ultimately feel about Dual will likely depend on how receptive they are to Stearns’ unique filmmaking aesthetic, which can turn an otherwise straightforward story into something else entirely. Given the film’s powerful opening scene, which features a man brutally battling someone eventually revealed to be his double, that misdirection is likely to catch more than a few people by surprise — particularly when the rest of the film avoids explicitly engaging with its “battle your clone” premise.

Still, there’s plenty to appreciate about Dual with the right amount of flexibility in what you expect from the film and your willingness to roll with all the intentional awkwardness of Stearns’ storytelling style. With an impressive performance by Gillan to keep it rolling along, Dual might not be the story you want or expect it to be, but it’s a fascinating tale if you give it a chance.

Dual will premiere April 15 in theaters, and will be available for on-demand streaming May 20.

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