Dual: One Day You Will Talk Like I Talk, by David Bax
Enough people liked Riley Stearns’ The Art of Self-Defense, it would seem, that he felt confident doubling down on some of that movie’s more irritating choices in his new follow-up, Dual. To be fair, not all of the ingredients from the previous film that make a return showing here are bad. There’s the preoccupation with personal combat training combat, with Self-Defense‘s monstrous sensei (Alessandro Nivola) swapped out for a more tender instructor played by Aaron Paul. And, while the music of extreme metal outfit Full of Hell doesn’t make a return, the band does show up on a character’s t-shirt. Plus the ominous drones of the score by Emma Ruth Rundle are nothing to complain about. Unfortunately, though, Stearns continues to enforce upon his actors a flat affect, an almost staccato method of line delivery. It’s as distractingly self-conscious here as it was three year ago.
This time, there’s a science fiction element to the story, in which Sarah (Karen Gillan), a terminally ill woman, has a falling out with the clone made to replace her after she’s gone. The rules of this slightly different version of our world reveal themselves bit by bit, with new wrinkles suddenly showing up in fun and funny ways. But even this bizarre, heightened reality doesn’t make it any less digestible to listen to the characters speak as if they’re reading the syllables phonetically.
Earlier, I left something off of the list of elements of The Art of Self-Defense that show up again in Dual. Stearns’ most commendable trait as a storyteller is his awareness that–for his characters as well as for his audience–life costs money. Too many movies find it impolite to dwell on the specifics of paycheck-to-paycheck living; they’ll make some references to bills or rent being late but never depict their characters actually negotiating their way through a day or a decision in the harsh terms of whether or not they can afford it. Sarah’s skint position hangs over every scene, a specter many of us know all too well.
Outside of that, though, Stearns is less straightforward in his messaging than in Self-Defense. This is a good thing. Where the previous film was full of blatant, if well-argued, points about toxic masculinity, Dual is less assured about what ill is plaguing Sarah. That’s literally the case–her diagnosis is never named–but it’s also allegorically true. Her initial malaise at the loss of her own identity has interpretations that will vary from viewer to viewer.
It’s too bad that Stearns couldn’t extend that vulnerable humility to his own methods. He’s still way too sure that his ironic dialogue (“You see this dog here?” “The one here on the leash?”) is clever and he’s still way too pleased with himself.
Perhaps managed by the Department of Redundancy Department.
I’ve heard Stearns compared to Yorgos Lanthimos, but I’ve only seen the latter’s work. What would you say most distinguishes them?
I see the comparison but the difference is simply that I believe in Lanthimos’ worlds and Stearns’ feel self-conscious and derivative. Matter of taste, I suppose, but that’s what a movie review is.