Riley Stearns Dual is a master at creating quirky worlds of odd people and strange, absurd circumstances. The writer and director of The Art Of Self-Defense could be a cosmic cousin to Yorgos Lanthimos, whose The Lobster and The Killing Of A Secret Deer seem ripped from the same dismal universe. Dual is a crafty mix of searing satire warning against the numbness of depression, the dangers of civility, and an interesting mystery. Starring a perfectly placid Karen Gillan(Guardians of the Galaxy) working overtime in dual roles, it is an understated bleak reminder that we only get one life and should enjoy it.
Sarah(Gillan) trudges through her grim life of meaningless, emotionless superficiality. She has a selfish boyfriend who can barely be bothered to care and a mother who maybe cares too much. Her monotonous life consists of working at a pointless job, talking to her boyfriend, who couldn’t care less, and drinking herself to sleep each night until one day, she wakes up in a pool of her own blood. A trip to the hospital results in a death sentence. Sarah is dying, or almost certainly dying. In one of many humorous turns, Sarah is given the 2% statistical anomaly to live. Blindly following advice to get a clone so her family isn’t sad, she purchased a clone and inserted it into her life.
Unfortunately, her clone seemed to be better at her life than she was. The clone is more accepting of her boyfriend’s suggestions. She is more attentive to Sarah’s mother, who doesn’t realize she exists at first and is generally more content with Sarah’s life than the original Sarah. When Sarah’s illness goes into remission, one of the women must go. They both can’t live as Sarah, as only one is needed. Per an absurd law, the two women must duel to the death. To the winners goes the spoils.
With one year to prepare, Sarah begins tirelessly training for her fight. She finds purpose in the preparation and a new friend in Aaron Paul’s Trent, a personal combat instructor. As the day approaches, Sarah finds a new purpose in life and a happiness she never thought possible. However, the nihilistic ending of Dual proves you can’t run away from your problems and, ultimately, yourself. Here’s everything you need to know about the ending of Dual, which Sarah lived, and what it all means.
The ending of Dual explained
After training for a year, continuing to pay support for her double and loan payments to the company that provided her, and surprisingly getting her groove back, she sees her double on the street and tries to shoot her with a crossbow. Despite having almost zero affect, Sarah is compelled to shoot her by her anger that the other woman has taken over her life and seems better at it than she is. However, the unfairness of having to pay for her clone to assume her life is too much for her to bear, so she shoots through the gym window where Trent trains her. Instead of hitting Sarah, however, she kills a dog.
After following her double, who hid inside some playground equipment, she and her double find an uneasy peace. Later at Sarah’s clone’s urging, they decide to hike into Canada, where they can both live free. On the drive to the border, Sarah’s double learns about driving and their new life. Before setting off for the hike, the two women wearily question each about weapons, and Sarah’s double encourages Sarah to take a large drink from a water bottle she provided.
Not long into the hike, Original Sarah begins bleeding from the mouth, and the next, we see one of the women limp onto the duel field and declare herself the winner. This Sarah claims to be the original Sarah. In the final moments, the survivor goes to trial to prove she is the original Sarah, and her boyfriend and mother alternately test her and enable her ruse. The film closes as Sarah breaks down in tears going the wrong way around a roundabout in her crashed car.
Which Sarah won?
Who survived the duel and emerged from the woods is purposely ambiguous. Stearns wants us to question who won because it isn’t even clear that they actually won anything. Regardless of who survived, they are stuck in a loveless, joyless life. Assuming Peter and Sarah’s mother were in on the poisoning plan, either woman would be trapped. Whoever won would be guilty of killing their double outside of the live program, which would be a crime. As a result, OG Sarah has to keep pretending to placate Peter and her mother, who knows what the clone planned, and if Sarah’s Double won, she would be stuck with OG Sarah’s life. To leave would risk being outed by Peter and OG Sarah’s mother. It’s a tragic end.
If Sarah’s clone survived, she cries at the end because she finally understands why OG Sarah was so depressed. Sarah’s Double now realizes that OG Sarah was right to be so unhappy. But, unfortunately, she had no way out of her life. Her mother and boyfriend are maintaining her cover, buying her colored contacts to conceal her true eye color, and testing her identity. If she admitted she was not the real Sarah, she wouldn’t have the needed support.
She is essentially an untrained, uneducated bystander in someone else’s life with no agency to change her situation. Everything from her having OG Sarah’s cracked phone to her dislike of Mexican food is subterfuge. She changed clothes and took OG Sarah’s phone after she died from poisoning to keep the lie going. Her boyfriend asking about Mexican food is just further proof that even though he prefers this Sarah, he doesn’t really care about either one. He’s either testing her or doesn’t remember what kinds of foods she likes. Both are not great traits in a partner.
Further clues are OG Sarah’s inability to cry or recognize a picture of a poisoning death. Trent didn’t spend much time preparing her for poison because it wasn’t considered a serious threat. It was a boring death that the duel coordinators would not choose because that would make for a dull televised event. As a result, OG Sarah would not suspect it. Additionally, OG Sarah genuinely seems to have had a change of heart in the last year. She is no longer a victim or a bystander in her life. Sarah’s Double, however, has not done a lot of preparing for the duel and realizes that the only way she could win is to trick OG Sarah. In most ways, Sarah’s Double considers herself superior to the original, including her ability to deceive.
When OG Sarah tried to shoot Sarah’s Double, it was a wake-up call to the clone. At that moment, she hatched her plan and started developing a relationship with her original. In all likelihood, her mother and boyfriend were in on the plan from the beginning. They both preferred the new and improved version and rejected OG Sarah.
The final scene of Sarah driving her crashed car poorly before breaking down in tears is a heartbreaking reminder that nothing has changed for anyone. Sarah’s Double may have survived and won the right to OG Sarah’s life, but it may not be a life worth living. She has developed all the same insecurities and self-loathing that most of us feel at one time or another and sees what OG Sarah always knew. Living without emotion and hope with people who don’t make you happy is pointless. Her mother and boyfriend treat her like a dependent. They don’t particularly care about her, and she is now saddled with all of OG Sarah’s responsibilities. Sarah’s Double is in a prison of her own making and knows it.
On the other hand, OG Sarah could have won. The Sarah that emerged had OG Sarah’s phone wore her clothes, and seemed just as unhappy as she was at the beginning. OG Sarah would be the only one equipped with the ability and the knowledge to dispose of a body and might want to pretend to be the clone pretending to be the original because she knows Peter and her mom prefer the clone. She just wants to be loved and happy. That is all she has ever wanted. Ironically, the man she hired she train her to kill someone is the person she should have looked to for that happiness.
If OG Sarah survived, it is possible she was trained in poisoning off-camera. Her body’s remission may have also provided her with some immunity to poison. Considering the large volume of blood she vomited early in the movie, the tiny trickle we see at the end would barely be a drop in the bucket. After surviving the poisoning, she could have overpowered her and beaten her clone to death. Sarah then hid her body in the forest for animals to dispose of. She only pretends not to be able to drive well to satisfy Peter and her mother. In this reading, she says she hates Mexican food because Sarah’s Double hates Mexican food, not OG Sarah.
They posit that OG Sarah pretends to be Sarah’s Double pretending to be OG Sarah because her mother and boyfriend were in on the plan and preferred the clone. She broke down and cried in the car at the end of Dual because she could never grieve for her life. She found purpose only in getting revenge and taking her life from her clone. OG Sarah never actually valued her life. She just didn’t want someone else to have it. After fighting so hard to win it back, she realized it was just as horrible as it always was. The people in her life wanted the clone and may have actively worked to kill her.
Her boyfriend and mother love her clone, which she has to pretend to be, and she has nothing to live for. The voicemail from Sarah’s mother at the end is damning. Her mother isn’t just reminding Sarah about her contacts. She is letting her know she knows who she really is. It’s a dark ending that means Sarah is now back in the life that was killing her a year ago.
Either woman winning could work. Unfortunately, both are surrounded by terrible people who only want things from Sarah without providing anything substantial to their lives. They are self-absorbed narcissists who enjoy the control they have over Sarah’s Double. Insecurities and flaws are all parts of life. After over a year, the clone would have the same sun spots, blemishes, and cellulite as anyone else. These aren’t proof that one woman or the other survived. They are only proof that Sarah’s life sucks because the people in it are the worst.
An argument could be made that Stearns is condemning this emotionless world and Sarah’s toxic relationships for her illness, regardless of who won. Sarah is obviously deeply depressed despite not admitting it. It’s only after she gets her clone and her clone steps into her life that she gets better. It’s possible Sarah’s hideous life is what made her sick, to begin with. It could be a coincidence and a needed plot device to set up conflict, but it works as a statement of Sarah’s existence.
The true meaning of Dual is simple. Find happiness and fulfillment in yourself and those you choose to spend time with. While it at first seems to be a clever bait and switch where we think we are getting a fight to the death in a near future world where life has little meaning, Dual is actually about the duality of existence. Duel spelled with an “E” as opposed to dual spelled with an “A” has two very different meanings.
One is a battle, while the other means consisting of two parts. It is a hint that it doesn’t matter which Sarah came back. Neither one will be complete because their environment is not healthy. We need happiness with misery, pain and pleasure, and boredom and excitement. The lows are required to appreciate the highs, but without the highs, there is nothing to live for. Life is for the living, and too late, Sarah realizes she isn’t really living.
As the Managing Editor for Signal Horizon, I love watching and writing about genre entertainment. I grew up with old-school slashers, but my real passion is television and all things weird and ambiguous. My work can be found here and Travel Weird, where I am the Editor in Chief.