This review was originally written in conjunction with Double‘s release at the Sundance International Film Festival 2022.
Over the course of three widely distributed feature films – Error, The art of self-defenseand the new Double – writer-director Riley Stearns has slowly revealed herself as a filmmaker who focuses on confrontation, but only when put in the calmest and most intense twists. There is not much shouting or fighting in his films. But the smoldering desire to shout and fight is always just below the surface of his determined characters. They were clearly not created for violence, but they often wish they were – or pretend to be. Everyone in these movies seems overwhelmed by the conflicts that have gripped them, and everyone is trying to figure out how to win, but no one wants to be rude about that.
IN Double, the dynamic comes with science fiction elements for the first time. The opening scene makes it clear that the title of the film, without puns, has a double meaning. In this world, cloning is easy and almost instantaneous, and terminally ill people are encouraged to clone themselves – “so that your loved ones do not suffer the loss of you,” according to an advertisement. But because clones are meant to take over the identity of their ancestors if circumstances change and the original cell donor does not die, they have to duel their clone to death to see which of them is going to continue to exist. .
That premise is absurd on a thousand levels, but Stearns leans directly into the absurdity, especially with the ad for the cloning service, which presents a stalemate scenario where a depressed man clones himself so he can commit suicide in peace without doing any of His family members suffer. This kind of brutally caustic humor defines the film. Anyone who can not see himself chuckling at least a little bit at the bleak prospect of a new clone calmly encountering his ancestor’s corpse and taking his place will be advised to steer clear.
Stearns channels absurdism through Sarah (Guardians of the Galaxy‘s Karen Gillan), a stinging young woman who is surprised to learn that she has a deadly disease with no cure and only a few months left to live. The doctor who brings the news is surprised by Sarah’s calmness: “Most people cry when doctors give them bad news, and that’s why most doctors are depressed,” she tells her patient. But Sarah’s removal is mostly unbelief. She is fine, except for the occasional tendency to cough up with large arthritis of blood. Nevertheless, she decides to take the clone route. The expense deters her at first, but the clone adviser she talks to gives her Riley Stearns, which equates to a hard sale: the completely straight-faced, flat-voiced statement: “You have to understand that this is a gift for your loved ones. Can you put a price that they should not be sad? ”
But as it happens, her boyfriend and mother are not only noticeably saddened by the news of Sarah’s impending death, they like the clone better than they like her. And when Sarah’s irreversible illness miraculously turns around and she realizes she’s going to live, her family shuts her out and embraces the clone instead. Her only hope is to win her public duel against Clone-Sarah (also played by Gillan, of course, in a remarkably smooth Orphan Black-style double role), which means learning to fight while learning to take responsibility for murdering someone who looks exactly like her.
In a moment, suddenly packed with multiverse stories, exploring alternative narratives for familiar stories and bringing different versions of specific characters together, Double sounds strange as a small version of the same idea where Sarah has to confront her failures by seeing how successful she could have been if she had made other choices. But it also fits nicely into the world of horror stories about evil opposites, where a character gets to value their lives more when an alternative version of themselves comes to steal it. The familiar message of being grateful for life feels surprisingly sour in DoubleBut considering how little warmth or personal support Sarah sees in that life before the clone arrives.
This is largely due to Double‘s peculiar removal from reality, a form of stylization that has easily been its most controversial and divisive choice. Stearns coaches his actors to a level of deadpan, rigid facial delivery that feels inhuman, with almost every line being a flat statement that highlights surrealism in an already surreal environment. Another film may reach out to the horror and melodrama of Sarah’s impending death and successor. It can also lean harder towards the way her dystopian world seems to be designed specifically to torment her, with laws that make her financially responsible for supporting the clone that displaces her and plans to murder her in it. strongly warned state-sanctioned duel. Instead, Stearns presents all of this in the most matter-of-fact way possible, which sometimes makes it harder to empathize with Sarah, or see her as more of a person than her schematic clone.
Stearns used much of the same tone The art of self-defense, who has the awkward nebbish Casey (Jesse Eisenberg) seeking martial arts training from a comic macho sensei (Alessandro Nivola) after an assault. That plotline gets a parallel in Double when Sarah gets in touch with match coach Trent (Breaking Bad‘s Aaron Paul) in hopes of stepping up to the duel. In both cases, Stearns draws a lot of extremely dry humor both from the students ‘gullibility and willingness to agree to anything, and the teachers’ ridiculously specific and unlikely training methods. (Sensei makes Casey stop petting her dog because it made him soft; Trent makes Sarah watch bloody movies and notices that they are not very good, but at least they are very bloody.) In both cases is part of the comedy by letting the actors perform with such heartfelt sincerity and so little tonal influence that they never seem to try to sell the audience on the reality of their unreal situations and beliefs.
All of this makes Stearns’ films more fun, but not necessarily more engaging. Self-defense art is more blatantly a comedy that mocks the artificial and self-destructive aspects people so often bring to their ideas of masculinity. But Double playing with harder subjects and more sensitive emotions, and the distant, moderate approach does not always serve the characters well. Viewers can try to inject their own sense of emotional pain and threat into the story, even though Sarah is obviously suffering and her life is constantly at stake. A single scene where she breaks down in tears in her car – which Gillan plays with heartbreaking conviction – does more to make the character seem human and relatable than just about the entire film’s total playing time.
And the ending makes it especially hard to take Double as even a gloomy, macabre comedy. It highlights the film’s cynicism about everything – about the capitalist structures that force Sarah to solve her own mortality by buying something to replace her, about the family and personal relationships that give her so few options, about the society that considers her to be replaced, about insignificant value of the life she has built for herself. It is a strange and memorable film with a unique voice and a unique perspective, and that alone makes it worth seeking out. But just as Stearns’ characters seemingly constantly suppress a cry of dismay or despair or defiance, viewers can get out of this and suppress the urge to yell at Stearns and demand a satisfaction that the film is not about to offer.
Double opens in theaters on April 15 and streams on AMC Plus and can be rented digitally and on-demand on May 20.