The third round of our Sundance coverage features Riley Stearns’ Dual, Shaunak Sen’s All That Breathes & Andrew Semans’ Resurrection:
With the two amazing black comedy features that he previously made, American indie breakout Riley Stearns demanded his audience to expect the unexpected. Just when you think that his stories cannot get wilder, he concieves a dark turn that puts you right into the spikey shoes of his characters. Thankfully, with an even wilder premise and atmosphere, he is able to sustain the potency that made him noticeable in the first place.
Dual revolves around Sarah. When she discovers that she’s terminally ill, she is recommended to have a clone of hers manufactured. That is one who’ll precisely twin her and will claim her life after her death as a double. With the twist of fate though, exactly ten months later, Sarah miraculously recovers. While that essentially meant that the double should have been decommissioned, Sarah’s double refuses it because she is too attached to everything associated with Sarah. As the twins nurture an obvious hatred for each other, the government has a natural solution for it. That is, a dual to death where the killer gets to live.
This is a fantastic narrative to work upon. Through a nuanced science-fiction fabric, a tale of capitalism’s many exploitations unfolds. The twins serve as wonderful motifs for a world that is both rule-abiding and commanded by its dog-eat-dog instincts. It also paints American politics as some kind of a dystopia, where under the veil of democracy, capitalism dictates and gets fatal. It also satires on the relentless elitism pursued by the bourgeoisie. These are a few of the many original ideas hidden in plain sight because of the brilliantly original script. More importantly, with such essential and biting comments, the film remains consistently entertaining. Riley, for the first time in his career, opts for dark, realist aesthetics which is quite conventional and fitting for a story as layered as this. However, nothing else really is.
Dual is a biting black comedy in the truest sense. It’s focused and immediately self-aware. Throughout the running time, we’re able to feel the utter madness of this dual. This is evident from the fact that the major part of the running time focuses on a training montage akin to a sports drama. Only, it’s a masterclass on how to exploit your license to kill. And yet, the lens essentially is on Sarah’s two entities. The writing is more interested in fleshing them out as complex humans who are essentially the same person.
The film further benefits from the extraordinary performance of Karen Gillan. She excellently churns out the two Sarahs and effortlessly slices herself into the two sides of a coin. It isn’t perfect though. The last act is ridden with tonal issues which takes away some pleasure out of our experience. That doesn’t stop Dual from being a solid, subversive film strengthening Riley’s foothold on his storytelling abilities.
All That Breathes
Directed by Shaunak Sen, All That Breathes (2022) follows Saud and Nadeem, along with their employee Salik, as they rescue and rehabilitate birds, to be specific kites. It shows them working from the basement of their house and eventually turning it into a full-scale hospital for their avian patients. The duo grapples with everything from geographical to financial to environmental problems while trying to ensure that nothing comes in the way of their mission to help the kites. But as Sen pulls back from the family, the religious and social conflict that’s brewing all around them in New Delhi and all over India is revealed, thereby imbuing Saud and Nadeem’s work with a certain sense of weight.
Unless you have been living under work, as soon as you get a hint of the timeline of All That Breathes, you will know where the narrative is heading towards. Yes, it’s the pogrom inflicted upon the Muslim community by Hindutva terrorists during the protest against the Islamophobic Citizenship Amendment Act imposed by the current Indian government. And it is so inevitable that you can do nothing but fear for the people you are watching in the documentary. But Shaunak delays the moment when the riot happened to give us an opportunity to view life through the eyes of these two Muslim brothers as they view life through the eyes of the kites. You see them bicker about waterlogging. You see them fight over the meat-grinder. You see them swim across a river to rescue an injured kite. You see them exist, adapt, and survive.
If you are not particularly angry about the systemic oppression that the Muslim community in India faces (which is displayed by the geography and architecture surrounding Saud and Nadeem’s family) on a daily basis, there’s a significant chance that All That Breathes will make you. If you are angry about said systemic oppression of the Muslim community, All That Breathes will be an infuriating watch. Because you’ll constantly wonder what are these bigoted politicians (and the media that normalizes their hatred) on about? Why are they so Islamophobic? The average Muslim family isn’t bothered by what they’re accused of. They just want to exist. In Saud and Nadeem’s case, they just want to save birds. There’s the larger environmental crisis that’s looming over us. Why isn’t the government bothered with that, even when we know that everything that breathes is going to be impacted equally?
Shaunak Sen doesn’t explicitly answer any of those questions because there are no concrete answers, and even if they were, he or his movie shouldn’t be the one relaying those answers. That’s the job of the people who are responsible for making India a safe, secure, and secular place for all. Now, until the people in charge do what they’re meant to do, watch All That Breathes as many times as you can and act on its message about unity and coexistence.
Written and directed by Andrew Semans, Resurrection (2022) follows Margaret (Rebecca Hall), a single mother to Abbie (Grace Kaufman) and one of the lead executives at a biotechnology company. She uses most of her waking hours to push the horizons of her job and monitor her daughter like danger is right around the corner. And when she does get some free time, she spends it on her friend-with-benefits cum co-worker Peter (Michael Esper). All this seems to be working fine for Margaret until she sees a man at a press conference, which causes her to spiral uncontrollably. She encounters him again at a mall and then at the park. That’s when she confronts the man and it’s revealed to us that he is David (Tim Roth), Margaret’s abusive ex, who has apparently returned after two decades for some unfinished business.
The concept of men gaslighting women has been explored in the horror genre (and yes, Resurrection is a horror movie) multiple times. But Semans takes it to its most realistic as well as surrealistic extremes without losing sight of the unending tragedy that comes with it. Because abusive relationships aren’t something that you simply walk out of. Even if you can literally do it, the echoes of that relationship stays with the victim till the day they die. Until then, it can manifest in positive ways, as shown in the scenes where Margaret uses her experience to motivate her junior, Gwyn (Angela Wong Carbone) to come out of the sadistic relationship she’s in. And it can manifest in negative ways, as seen in the scenes where Margaret basically holds her daughter prisoner under the pretext of protecting her while scarily emulating what David did to her. However, even during Margaret’s most desperate moments, Semans keeps reminding you that she’s not the villain here. The villain was, is, and always will be men like David.
Time and again, Rebecca Hall has proven that she is not just one of the best actresses working in the industry, but also a master of the horror genre. Everything that she does in the movie is worthy of ten-minute-long ovations. But her uncut, heart-wrenching, tear-jerking monologue is reason enough to rank Resurrection as one of the best movies of the year. Then there’s Tim Roth who is so slimy, infuriating, and such a perfect amalgamation of all the men who derive some weird pleasure by torturing women that you will feel the urge to reach through the screen and choke him. That’s a compliment, by the way. In addition to all that, Resurrection is beautiful to look at as its pastel hues, smooth editing, and soothing tunes devolves into a sickening colour palette, jarring cuts, and unnerving sonic cues, along with the narrative. And while women who watch this movie won’t derive anything “new” from it, apart from being reassured that their apprehension towards men is correct, it’s men who should watch it and learn to move on.