By Adam Reck
As year-end movie lists start to post on every website, I’ve noticed one movie that I really connected with isn’t appearing on any of them. And it’s probably for an understandable reason: Riley Stearns’ Dual is only at a level 70% on Rotten Tomatoes, getting a 5.8/10 on IMDB, and about half of Letterboxd reviews give it either three or three and a half stars. Good but not stellar reviews. Despite all those middling reactions, I haven’t been able to shake Dual. It’s remained in my top five fave films of 2022 list since I saw it, and it’s still there as I write this.
This is not for a lack of context. I watched more movies this year than I probably have in any other year of my entire life. By the end of December, I’ll probably have watched something along the lines of 225 flicks, with over 60 of those being new releases from 2022. Part of that is because I’ve become increasingly obsessed with movies thanks to my Letterboxd account and podcasts like The Big Picture. The other reason is that I’ve had far more alone time this year than ever before, and I’ve filled those lonely hours with visits to the local AMC and pouring through the libraries of my many streaming services.
Dual has a fairly straightforward sci-fi premise. In a world much like our own, scientific advances have made it possible to clone yourself. Clones are mainly used for a single purpose. When a person is diagnosed with a terminal illness or dies suddenly, the clone takes their place. Families no longer have to grieve. They can go on with their lives trauma-free, as though nothing has happened. Or at least, that’s the idea. This is the choice Dual’s main character Sarah, played by Karen Gillan, makes when she learns she is going to die. Her clone takes up with her husband, forges an enviable relationship with her mother, and is a better version of Sarah in every way. That is, until Sarah learns she is no longer dying. Her only recourse? A mandated duel to the death with her clone that she has one year to train for with professional combat trainer Trent, played by Aaron Paul. The film is wry and funny, playing with themes of mortality and mental illness through dark comedy and a savage wit.
Before anyone gets the wrong idea, I did not connect with Dual so strongly because I was sick. Fingers crossed, I’m finishing off the year in good health. But I did go through something in 2022 that has drastically changed my life. I got divorced. My partner and I had been together for over 20 years, and after counseling and lots of long, difficult conversations, it was clear our relationship wasn’t working. We agreed to get divorced over a year before it actually happened this past Spring, but talking about it and doing it are two different things, and the process of moving out of my former home to a place down the street, splitting time with our daughter, and getting used to a new, more isolated version of my life was not (and continues to not be) easy.
In Dual, Sarah looks on as her clone does exactly what it’s supposed to by filling the spot in her life where she used to be. Sarah is alive but also a ghost in her own world. It’s as if she’s already died even though she’s standing in the room. She has been literally replaced, and yet, because of her misdiagnosis, she continues on, a living person looking in on her own life, disconnected from her loved ones and everything that once made her who she was. There is no going back or returning to the way things were. In desperation, she tells her boyfriend, “Just tell me what you want me to be, and I’ll be it for you,” but he’s already made up his mind and has moved on. Sarah is forced to remain the third party, and to figure out how to handle it. And if there was a single recurring theme in my own conversations as I returned to therapy this year, it was a similar overwhelming sense of haunting my own reality. Seeing photos from events at my former home, the surreal experience of meeting my ex’s new partner, and inevitably being distanced from former extended family members with whom I’d shared holidays for decades inspired overwhelming feelings of disorientation, disconnection, loss, and pain. All the things I could see Sarah going through in Dual.
One of the main criticisms I’ve seen ofthe movie is the disaffected way the characters deliver their lines and interact with each other. Save for the occasional outburst or scream, Sarah primarily deals with her emotional state internally, quietly asking questions of her doctor, holding back as she’s told terrible, if honest, things by her mother, husband, and clone, and even remaining restrained as she pantomimes ridiculous fight scenarios with her trainer. I never took issue with this, because not only is Stearns deliberately presenting the story this way, but in large part, this is how I deal with my emotions too. It might be coming from a German-American family who never quite knows how to express how they’re feeling, or the ongoing depression I’ve dealt with for much of my life, but there’s a familiar quality to the way Sarah bottles up her woes only to break into tears while driving her car or her monotone protests that only demonstrate her potential unlikeability.
The imminent duel in Dual does help give shape and purpose to Sarah’s life. The first question Trent asks Sarah before they begin training is, “Do you want to live?” Her tepid response makes him skeptical. Sarah has to decide that she does want to live after she has been resigned to the fact that she won’t be able to anymore. Trent actually dispenses pretty great advice, encouraging Sarah to work out in her own time, but doing it through something she enjoys. He suggests finding joy in the things that make you healthy and help you survive. And even though it’s played for laughs, Sarah finding strength through her workout class hip-hop choreography is pretty inspirational. This year I found myself in need of similar advice. This was a new normal, and regardless of any of the mourning of my old life I was doing, I needed to remain a father first and be there for my daughter, I needed to keep my head up for work, and I needed to remind myself every day that there are essential responsibilities and life goes on. As basic as all of this might sound, Trent’s words of wisdom, along with some real-world help from friends, got me into working out with a used rowing machine, which was more exercise than I’d done in just about my entire life. The answer to Trent’s core question has to be yes, but finding meaning and value in the new is the continuing challenge.
Of course, the central irony in Dual is right there in its central conceit. No matter Sarah’s anger, remorse, or frustration, her enemy is always ultimately herself. She is her own worst enemy, and her actions have not only gotten her into her current situation, but it’s this other her that continues to plague her daily whether she’s around or not. Even Sarah’s double, who thinks it’s a superior version of Sarah, ultimately realizes that the life she subsumed isn’t what she thought it would be and becomes even more of a reflection of her source material. Without spoiling the ending, the film posits a scenario resembling a return to the norm, even though that very situation is both impossible and traumatic. And this is the part of the movie that hits me the hardest, knowing that whatever my current situation, I am the problem. I contributed to the disconnection that led to my divorce. I am the source of my own suffering. My very biological makeup lies in wait to guide me in the wrong direction at any time. This means that every day I have to battle with my own self to successfully move forward, knowing that there is no going back; there is no sci-fi trope to rectify what’s broken. There is only the hope of better days and staying resolute in the face of sadness.
Making sure I don’t end this on a total downbeat, please know that as time passes, things are becoming easier. My previously mentioned movie habit has been one of the nice ways to keep focus and calm my mind. Escaping into fiction, enjoying a story either alone or with friends, or with an audience by my side, is really helpful. It’s like Nicole Kidman has told me countless times, “Heartbreak feels good in a place like this.” I think she might be right. Because whether it’s in the theater or on my TV, seeing my own emotional state reflected in a story is selfishly validating. It means that someone else out there has felt like that too, and felt it so much that it ended up as part of an expensive production with amazing actors performing it on screen. I’m not the only one processing. I’m just not doing it with a multi-million dollar budget.
As viewers take stock of the flicks they want to catch up on from the year, I do hope they stumble onto this weird little movie. Dual is likely off the radar for a lot of viewers, but I’d love for it to gain a greater audience that appreciates its deadpan humor and can also identify with what Sarah is going through, no matter how they might see it reflected in their own life. (If you have Hulu, it’s on there.) As for me, I’m actually going to try to watch less movies next year. I’m going to try to heed Trent’s advice and keep my eyes open for more of my own versions of hip-hop dance class. Gotta stay sharp. It’s only a matter of time before I’ll have to face my own worst enemy.