This review was originally written in collaboration with double‘s release at the Sundance International Film Festival in 2022.
Over the course of three widely spaced feature films – faults† The art of self defenseand the new one double — writer-director Riley Stearns has slowly emerged as a filmmaker focused on confrontation, but only when articulated in the quietest and most intense of terms. There isn’t much yelling or fighting in his movies. But the simmering desire to scream and fight is always just below the surface for his determined characters. They’re clearly not made for violence, but they often wish they were – or pretend they were. 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 cheeky about the.
In double, that dynamic comes with science fiction elements for the first time. The opening scene makes it clear that the title of the film, no pun, 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 don’t have to suffer the loss of you,” according to one ad. But since clones are meant to inherit their ancestors’ identities, if circumstances change and the original cell donor doesn’t die, they must duel their clone to the death to see which of them can survive.
That premise is absurd on a thousand levels, but Stearns leans straight into absurdity, especially with that ad for the cloning service, which presents a deadpan scenario where a depressed man clones himself so he can kill himself in peace without making anyone of his family. members suffer. This kind of brutally biting humor characterizes the film. Anyone who can’t see himself chuckling at least a little at the bleak prospect of a new clone calmly coming over his ancestor’s corpse and taking his place is advised to stay away.
Stearns channels absurdism through Sarah (Guardians of the Universe‘s Karen Gillan), a spiky 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 delivering the news is surprised at Sarah’s calmness: “Most people cry when doctors bring bad news, that’s why most doctors are depressed,” she tells her patient. But Sarah’s removal is mostly disbelief. She feels fine, except for the occasional tendency to cough up huge amounts of blood. Still, she decides to take the clone route. The cost initially puts her off, but the clone consultant she speaks to gives her the Riley Stearns equivalent of a hard sell: the completely straightforward, flat explanation of voice: “You have to understand that this is a gift for your loved ones. Can put a price on it that they don’t have to be sad?”
Coincidentally, though, not only are her boyfriend and mother not noticeably saddened by the news of Sarah’s impending death, they love the clone more than she does. And when Sarah’s irreversible illness miraculously reverses and she realizes she will 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 Black orphan-style dual role), which means learning how to fight, while learning how to take responsibility for killing someone exactly like her.
In a moment suddenly filled with multiverse stories exploring alternate narrative avenues for familiar stories and bringing together different versions of specific characters, double strangely reads as a small-scale version of the same idea, in which Sarah must confront her failures by seeing how successful she would have been had she made different choices. But it also fits nicely into the world of evil opposites horror stories, where a character comes to appreciate their life more when an alternate version of themselves comes along to steal it. The well-known message about being grateful for life feels surprisingly sour in doublehowever, given how little warmth or personal support Sarah sees in that life before the clone comes along.
This is largely due to double‘s peculiar removal from reality, a form of stylization that has easily been the most controversial and divisive choice. Stearns coaches his actors to a level of deadpan, rigid recitation that feels inhumane, where nearly every line is a flat statement emphasizing surrealism in an already surreal setting. Another movie could seize on the horror and melodrama in Sarah’s impending death and replacement. It could also lean harder on the way her dystopian world appears to be specifically designed to torment her, with laws making her financially responsible for supporting the clone that displaces her and plotting to kill her in that heavily foreshadowed state-sanctioned duel. Instead, Stearns presents all of this in the most down-to-earth way possible, which sometimes makes it harder to empathize with Sarah, or see her as more of a person than her wily clone.
Stearns used much of the same tone in The art of self defense, in which clumsy nebbish Casey (Jesse Eisenberg) seeks martial arts training from a comedic macho sensei (Alessandro Nivola) after a robbery. That storyline gets a parallel in double when Sarah makes contact with fight trainer Trent (Breaking Bad‘s Aaron Paul) in hopes of getting stronger for the duel. In either case, Stearns draws a lot of extremely dry humor from both the students’ gullibility and willingness to go with everything, and the ridiculously specific and improbable training methods of the teachers. (Sensei makes Casey stop petting his dog because it made him soft; Trent makes Sarah watch gory movies and notes that they aren’t very good, but at least they are very gory.) Because the actors performing with such fiery sincerity and so little tonal influence is that they never seem to try to sell the public the reality of their unreal situations and beliefs.
All of this makes Stearns’ films funnier, but not necessarily more engaging. art of self defense is more overtly a comedy, poking fun at the artificial and self-destructive aspects that people so often bring into their ideas of masculinity. But double plays with tougher subjects and more sensitive emotions, and the aloof, mannered approach doesn’t always serve the characters well. Viewers may be trying to inject their own sense of emotional pain and threat into the story, even though Sarah is openly suffering and her life is constantly on the line. A single scene of her bursting into tears in her car—which Gillan plays with heartbreaking conviction—does more to make the character human and recognizable than just about the entire combined running time of the film.
And the ending makes it particularly hard to take double as even a sombre, macabre comedy. It highlights the film’s cynicism about everything – about the capitalist structures that push 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 expendable, about the negligible value of the life she has built for herself. It’s a strange and memorable film with a unique voice and perspective, and that alone makes it worth seeking out. But just as Stearns’ characters seem to constantly suppress a cry of horror or despair or defiance, viewers can come out of this and suppress the urge to yell at Stearns and demand a gratification that the film isn’t going to provide.
double opens in theaters April 15 and will be streamed on AMC Plus and available for digital and on-demand rentals May 20.