Riley Stearns was last making the festival rounds back in 2019 with The Art Of Self-Defense, his arch indie take on masculinity and martial arts starring Jesse Eisenberg as a wimpy accountant. This year he’s back at Sundance with the far superior Dual, a sci-fi-tinged lark about having to fight your own clone for the right to your identity.
The hallmark of both movies is a detached, affectless style of delivery that makes every character sound like a chatbot sharing some interesting facts they’ve just learned about bread. While this conceit felt like an impediment to deeper understanding in The Art Of Self-Defense, Stearns’ aloof style is a far better fit in Dual, which stars Karen Gillan as Sarah, a terminally-ill millennial who pays a futuristic tech company to make a clone that will eventually replace her, who ends up having to fight the clone for the right to her identity.
Stearns shot Dual entirely in Finland during the height of COVID lockdowns, meaning all the locations are ineffably Scandinavian and the whole cast outside of the principals have a cornucopia of accents, from Finnish to British to everything in between, similar to the way Sergio Leone used Italian locations, crews, and extras for his English-language “Spaghetti Westerns” back in the 60s. I asked a Finnish friend for the Finnish equivalent of “spaghetti” and she suggested “pyttipannu,” a quick mix of old potatoes with sausage and onion. Which I guess makes Dual a sort of Pyttipannu Sci-Fi, though I admit it doesn’t roll off the tongue in quite the same way.
Yet the setting has much the same effect as Stearns’ spammy house style, giving Dual a slightly otherworldly, uncanny valley sensibility that only highlights its ideas of alienation and corporate dehumanization. Its tertiary characters evoke that feeling of reaching a customer support technician who lives somewhere out there in the ether, seeming to exist somewhere between idea and reality, with opaque backstory and unplaceable accent. Does anyone actually care about me? Is true human connection even possible? Or are we all just going through the motions? Finland is a weird little place, and Dual is a weird little movie.