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To the Death: "Dual" Review

WARNING: Contains spoilers for Dual (2022).

In an opening sequence that can only be described as Friday Night Lights meets The Hunger Games, a man (played by Theo James) fights for his life while fans cheer from the sidelines of what looks like a high school football stadium. Cameras are filming as he runs toward his opponent who has already shot him with a crossbow. He manages to stab his opponent to death and the duel is over. When we finally see the bloodied face of his opponent, we realize he looks exactly the same as the man we were just watching. As the winner is congratulated, the announcer asks, “Remind me again, are you the original or the double?” “The double,” he replies.

Sarah (Karen Gillan) spends her nights alone. She orders Mexican takeout, dodges phone calls from her mom, and lies to her boyfriend Peter (played by Beulah Koale), who is somewhere overseas for work, about what she is really up to so she can drink whiskey and watch porn on her laptop in peace. This is her routine until she wakes up from a nightmare to find she has vomited blood all over her pillow. She goes to the doctor and pukes blood again while in the waiting room. The doctor tells her to rest and lay off alcohol for a few days while they run some tests. During that time, Peter seems to be dodging Sarah’s usual calls. When she finally speaks to him she learns that her doctor left him a voicemail (as her medical proxy) when she was unavailable. She’s dying and he didn’t know how to tell her.

The humor of Riley Stearns’ writing shines through his awkward, stilted dialogue. As Sarah, Gillan speaks like a deadpan version of one of her more well-known characters: Guardian of the Galaxy’s Nebula. She robotically rattles off what she seems to think others want to hear or what makes her sound more normal. Her doctor tells her she is “most certainly going to die” (although there is a 2% margin of error). She delivers terrible news to her patient while trying to use ridiculous sports metaphors to comfort her. Stearns’ dialogue is often immensely ridiculous, yet delivered with a completely straight face by his cast. Sarah is told she should decide on her funeral arrangements and that she can have herself cloned so that her loved ones won’t have to go on without her. The fairly common but expensive procedure is known as “replacement.”

Sarah is an only child so she decides to go for it and an hour later her “double” appears (also played by Gillan). Sarah’s double goes home with her so that she can learn all about her before essentially taking over her life upon Sarah’s death. The only way we are truly able to tell them apart is that the double accidentally received blue eyes vs. Sarah’s brown eyes. But as she spends more time with Sarah and asks her questions about her likes and dislikes, we realize that Sarah’s double seems to have her own plans; rather than trying to become a carbon copy of Sarah, she wants to become “better.” After 10 months, Sarah is still alive and so is her double. They're both living with her boyfriend Peter while Sarah watches, becoming more and more withdrawn on the sidelines of her life. It’s like her double is Single White Female only she is Sarah’s literal clone. Peter starts to prefer Sarah 2.0 who seems happier and eager to please him by liking all of the things that the original Sarah dislikes. Sarah’s double asks her if there are any updates on how soon she will die as she and Peter get ready to go out for a romantic dinner together and leave Sarah at home.

When Sarah goes for a checkup she learns that she is no longer dying. Her doctor, who so confidently told her months ago that she was most certainly going to die now reminds her of that 2% margin of error. Because she is going to live, Sarah is able to return her double to be “decommissioned.” However, when she returns home she finds that her mother and Peter are there with her double. Her double has been pretending to be her for months while forming a relationship with her mother. Sarah did not want her mom to worry so she avoided her calls, while simultaneously, an eager double began gaining her mother’s affection. When Sarah tells them she has gone into remission and plans to decommission her double, Peter breaks up with her on the spot and locks her out of their house. Her mom even closes the blinds in Sarah’s face, sealing the decision. Sarah is on her own to figure this out. I love the completely ludicrous yet believable delivery of anger when Sarah learns she is well and her double has taken over her life. People so often compare themselves to others in good and bad ways. Stearns’ story proves that you are often your own worst enemy.

Rather than be decommissioned, Sarah’s double decides to “file a motion to stay” alive with a lawyer. A duel to the death (like the one we watched in the film’s opening sequence) will take place in one year’s time to decide which Sarah gets to remain. Sarah, in the interim, must continue to make payments for the expensive procedure to create her double, as well as a sort of alimony to her for the cost of living while they are both still alive. Sarah’s lawyer recommends she attend personal combat training in preparation for their duel to ensure her success. Enter Aaron Paul. As her trainer Trent, Aaron Paul is soft-spoken and intense. Trent is less anxious than Breaking Bad’s Jesse Pinkman and less downtrodden than his character Caleb in Westworld. If you’ve seen Stearns’ 2019 film, The Art of Self-Defense, Trent has some of the same calm wisdom as Alessandro Nivola’s sensei, with a bit more patience and understanding thrown in for Sarah’s student.

When Trent asks Sarah, “Do you want to live?” we are not so confident in her answer of yes. She is in terrible shape. She eats poorly and drinks too much alcohol. She seems depressed and unhappy with Peter despite saying that she loves him. Trent assures her that the first step to her success is to strengthen her body, then her mind. He puts her through a series of calisthenics and encourages her to find a method of exercise on her own. He sends her home with horror movies to watch to get her used to seeing blood and violence. When the duel actually happens, Sarah and her double will each have ten seconds to choose from one of the five weapons offered. Trent tells Sarah that a “properly trained human body is also a weapon.” Between training with Trent, taking a hip-hop dance class to stay active, and paying support for her double, Sarah is tight on money. Trent suggests perhaps they can “come to a mutually beneficial agreement” if needed. (Gulp.) He sets up a “field trip” for her to a morgue to watch an autopsy be done on a woman who looks a lot like Sarah. Whenever things become particularly intense for Sarah emotionally, the film’s score blasts loud industrial-sounding electronic music, almost like whenever Sebastian Stan enters the scene in Captain America: Winter Soldier. When the duel is postponed for another month Sarah must accept Trent’s offer of “alternate payment” to keep up with combat training. Much to my pleasant surprise, rather than sexual favors, she gives Trent hip-hop dance lessons.

Sarah is ready. She has comically mimed fighting sequences with Trent, covering all of the options of weapon choices she and her double could choose. She has practically aced test after test of various methods of killing that could potentially be chosen as options for their duel. The most moving scene is when Sarah catches her double spying on her during a training session and chases her down. When they finally speak, her double reveals that Sarah’s life isn't quite what she hoped for. She describes her petty fights with Peter and her constant interactions with Sarah’s mother and how tedious they can be. She accepts blame for trying to “steal” Sarah’s life. At that moment, Sarah realizes that she has moved on and is making a new life for herself. At her request, Sarah and her double attend a “Duel Survivors Support Group.” Hearing the survivors speak about the loss of their other, along with her double’s own confession of guilt for her actions leads Sarah to ask: why do they have to fight to the death? Why can’t they both live?

The next morning, Sarah picks up her double (who hasn’t learned how to drive) and they set off into the woods to cross the border and avoid the duel. When Sarah trips, her double instinctively reaches out and grabs her hand to steady her. We start to believe that maybe they can both live, but as Sarah rambles on about what might happen once they don’t show up for the duel, her double looks more and more troubled. At that moment, Sarah realizes her water bottle has been poisoned by her double. Poison, the weapon Trent suggested was the most unlikely to be chosen for the duel, is still an option out here in the woods. We don’t see Sarah die. But we watch her double appear at the duel, limping out of the woods, claiming to be the “original Sarah.” Saying that her double must have fled, “Sarah” is investigated by authorities and goes to court. Peter and her mother both testify that she is the “original Sarah.” In the film’s final sequence, we watch a limping “Sarah” get into a very banged-up car to drive herself to work. She ignores a call from her mother who leaves a voicemail stating that she has ordered more brown-colored contact lenses for her and that she loves her. “Sarah” starts to whimper and cry, driving in the wrong direction in a traffic circle. The scene is reminiscent of an earlier one where the original Sarah held back tears and screamed in the car after learning she was no longer going to die and her double had stolen her life. When all is said and done, Sarah’s double is just as unhappy and unfulfilled with her life as the original Sarah. Stearns’ film makes us look at humanity and our “sense of self” in a whole new light.


Diana DiMuro

Associate Editor

Besides watching TV and movies, Diana likes plants, the great outdoors, drawing and reading comics, and just generally rocking out. She has a BA in English Literature and is an art school dropout. You can follow her on Instagram @dldimuro and Twitter @DianaDiMuro




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