A sort of comedic spin on the concept of last year’s sci-fi drama Swan Song, Riley Stearns’ Dual acknowledges the inherent absurdity and creepiness of the central idea, while allowing the characters to play things straight. In both movies, the terminally ill main character signs up for a program that creates a clone of them to live on after they die, taking their place among their loved ones and easing the grieving process. Swan Song treats this process as somber and almost holy, with a sensitive lead performance from Mahershala Ali. Dual makes it into an existential farce.
Star Karen Gillan fits perfectly into the surreal world that Stearns creates, and her twin performances carry the movie. She plays Sarah, a morose slacker who seems to spend most of her time drinking and looking at online porn, and whose boyfriend Peter (Beulah Kole) is distracted and disengaged when they talk via video chat. Then one day Sarah wakes up to discover that she’s vomited blood all over her bedding, and she’s quickly diagnosed with a nonspecific terminal disease that is guaranteed to kill her, albeit painlessly.
In this vaguely dystopian future, “replacement” is a common practice for people who are about to die, and Sarah undertakes the procedure somewhat haphazardly. She hasn’t yet told her loved ones about her condition before she’s bringing home her own double. Although the doubles are physically identical to the originals, they require a training period to take on the proper personality, which seems fairly unreliable.
So the new Sarah clearly diverges from the original—she’s fitter and has clearer skin and shinier hair, and she also has a more upbeat and proactive approach to life. Ten months after Sarah’s diagnosis, she’s living as a passive observer to her own life, which has been taken over by someone else. Both Peter and Sarah’s mother (Maija Paunio) strongly prefer the double to Sarah herself.
This would all be just a bit of morbid melancholy at the end of Sarah’s life, except she’s suddenly and inexplicably declared to be completely cured. The law forbids two people from having the same identity, and since Sarah’s double refuses to be “decommissioned,” the prescribed solution is for the two of them to fight to the death in a televised duel. Sarah has one year to prepare to fight for her life, which everyone treats as just a minor irritation of modern life.
Stearns’ arch, deadpan style reaches a new level here, following his slightly more grounded earlier films Faults and The Art of Self-Defense. Those movies were set in heightened versions of the real world, but Dual takes place in the kind of bizarre alternate reality that might show up in a Yorgos Lanthimos movie. Like Lanthimos, Stearns also has his actors deliver deliberately awkward dialogue, although Stearns’ style is looser and jokier. Especially in its early scenes, Dual is often hilarious, with perhaps the funniest-ever scene of a doctor delivering a death sentence to a patient.
Gillan easily distinguishes between the two versions of Sarah while also making it clear that they are variations on the same person, and she conveys the original Sarah’s bemused desperation as her situation gets more and more dire. Aaron Paul gets some entertaining moments as the combat instructor Sarah hires to prepare herself for the duel, but this is really Gillan’s movie, and the scenes in which she interacts with herself are especially clever and powerful. Even within this ridiculous nightmare scenario, Stearns gives Gillan moments of grace, which she pulls off just as impressively as the dry comedy.
Eventually, Stearns sort of writes himself into a corner, especially since the movie opens with a duel between another cloned pair, and a repeat of that event would be anticlimactic. The final twists in the plot aren’t always satisfying, particularly for the relationship between the two Sarahs, but Dual ends on a darkly funny note that carries on its delightfully cynical spirit.