Sundance Film Festival U.S. Dramatic Competition Section
Reviewed for Shockya.com by Abe Friedtanzer
Director: Riley Stearns
Writer: Riley Stearns
Cast: Karen Gillan, Aaron Paul, Beulah Koale, Maija Pauino
Screened at: Sundance Film Festival Online, LA, 1/23/22
Opens: January 22nd, 2022
When someone knows that their life is coming to an end, their priorities may change and shift to those they will leave behind. Ensuring the financial prosperity of loved ones may be paramount, but there is also the emotional toll of a loss to be considered. The notion that death could be countered by the creation of an identical replacement is one that raises considerable ethical questions. Dual satirizes this concept by imagining a system in which this option is available but often actually hurts the benefactors more than it helps them.
Sarah (Karen Gillan) discovers that she has a disease that will almost certainly kill her. Eager to spare her mother (Maija Pauino) the pain of even knowing that she will soon die, Sarah opts to participate in a program called Replacement where a double will spend time with her until she dies to learn how to be just like her. When she learns that she is in remission and will live, she is told that, because her double wants to live, they will be forced to duel to the death so that only one of them survives.
This film functions on multiple levels. The most pronounced might be as a parody of the loops within the healthcare and legal systems that ultimately end up penalizing people through no fault of their own. The first red flag comes when Sarah is told that she does not need to worry about the cost of the procedure because her double will assume her debt when she dies and continue paying it off. When she learns she will live, the typical solution is for the double to be decommissioned, but because she too wants to exist, Sarah has no choice but to begin training for a violent duel and must also pay financial support to her double.
Those inherent contradictions are echoed by the obliviousness of anyone else to what Sarah has to endure. Her doctor, who initially flubs by telling her boyfriend (Beulah Koale) that she is dying in a voicemail left on his phone, assures Sarah that she will die, and accepts no responsibility whatsoever when her absolute certainty proves to be incredibly wrong. Almost immediately, Sarah Double, as she is called, proves more appealing to both Sarah’s boyfriend and mother, and they all abandon her as if she doesn’t have any right to be upset that they traded in for the “better model.”
Just as consumers always want to get the latest and newest version of any technology or accessory, the initial draw of perfection slowly begins to fade over time. Where this film becomes most interesting is not in how those in Sarah Double’s life begin to find her less alluring but in her own development of resentment towards both of them for being too invested and demanding in being a part of her life. Sarah is already blunt and to the point in how she communicates, and her double is just as matter-of-fact and unfiltered in her interactions with everyone she meets.
At the center of this exceptionally interesting story is Gillan, an actress who has already demonstrated tremendous ability and range in films like The Party’s Just Beginning and Gunpowder Milkshake. She turns in twin performances that immediately stand apart and highlight minute differences in each. She handles the film’s very deliberate and smart script very well, as does Aaron Paul in an uncharacteristically methodical turn as her combat trainer. Writer-director Riley Stearns delivers a film that is equally thought-provoking and involving, just as suited for intense analysis as it is a very fulfilling watch.
Story – A-
Acting – A-
Technical – B+
Overall – A-