Ten months later, the situation has gotten worse. Sarah’s mysterious illness has vanished, but her double has essentially already taken over her life — she’s been hanging out with Sarah’s mom, and even dating Peter. (“Peter and I will probably make love when we get home tonight,” Sarah’s double tells the original as Peter and the double prepare to go on a date. “As you know, I tend to be loud, so I wanted you to be aware.”) When Sarah tries to have her double decommissioned, the double exercises a right that Sarah must not have noticed in the fine print when she initially agreed to this process: If a double feels like they’ve established their own identity, they can challenge the original to a duel to the death, which are filmed and broadcast as a popular TV show.
Kicked out of her own apartment and with a year until the duel takes place, Sarah hires a personal combat trailer named Trent (Aaron Paul) and begins learning the most effective ways to kill her double. Paul doesn’t show up until 40 minutes into the movie, and if you were hoping someone would Kool-Aid Man their way into this movie and inject some energy into the proceedings … that’s not what happens. Trent is a no-nonsense, all-business guy, and he’s only concerned with getting Sarah mentally and physically prepared for what’s to come.
As we’ve seen in previous projects, Gillan and Paul are both capable of tremendous warmth and charisma on screen. But that’s not what they’re asked to do here. Instead, their performances are close to robotic and disaffected — almost Eisenbergian, which underlines how “The Art of Self-Defense” star Jesse Eisenberg is perhaps the actor who has (so far) best embodied the singular style Stearns is going for. Like every other character in this movie, they’re infused with a stoic nature and bone-dry humor. This is definitely a “wavelength” film: you either get on board with the heightened choices early, or you’ll be distracted all the way through.
I won’t spoil the ending, but the movie’s opening scene, which features “Divergent” actor Theo James playing a guy who has to fight himself, sets the tone for how violent the duels can be. But as evidenced by this film’s title (“Dual,” not “Duel”), Stearns is not as concerned with creating a gruesome “Battle Royale” as he is with exploring the dynamics between characters and the contradictions and conflicts that arise when two of the “same” person come together. In the movie’s best scene, both versions of Sarah visit a duel survivors support group, made up of people who won duels and those whose originals died before they had a chance to be able to properly mimic them. They listen to testimony from Larry, who was once a double who only had two days to learn about his original before the original took his own life, leaving Larry trapped with people he doesn’t care about and in a life he didn’t ask for. But since doubles can’t have doubles made of themselves, Larry is stuck; in this speech, Stearns is able to capture the tremendous burden that can sometimes arise from simply being alive.
Ruthless, deeply cynical, and thrumming with jet-black humor, “Dual” is a Riley Stearns movie through and through.
/Film Rating: 8 out of 10