The Double is the second feature film from Richard Ayoade (star of The IT Crowd, director of Submarine) and it is a remarkably assured sophomore work; set in an otherworldly dystopia of sinister lighting and retro-décor the film tracks an alienated young man’s descent into destructive paranoia. It is a memorably peculiar, surreal and haunting thriller, with an undercurrent of dark comedy and an unnerving mood that immediately impacts. Ayoade and co-writer Avi Korine (brother of Harmony Korine, Spring Breakers) have used Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s 1846 novella of the same name as a source and inspiration.
Much of The Double takes place in a drab, dingy Orwellian bureaucratic office where overworked and underpaid clerks like Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg) check in and out and are pigeonholed into stuffy portals. Their work is tedious and repetitious. Despite his thankless loyalty to the firm for seven years Simon has remained just as insignificant as the day he started. His I.D card never registers and he has to prove his identity on a daily basis to the building security guard and his supervisor Mr Papadopoulos (‘Mr Inconceivable’ himself, Wallace Shawn) believes his name is Stanley. He is also hardly noticed by Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), a colleague he is smitten with. She lives in the apartment opposite him and his evenings involve telescopically spying on her in a disconcertingly predatory fashion. He is too nebbish and shy to approach her, creating obvious and poorly executed excuses to visit her in the copy room.
For the shrinking Simon, nothing fits. He is frequently nervous and sweaty; his oversized suit always crumpled. The inexplicable increases in the rates for his mother’s nursing care are lifted unchallenged from his wallet. The opening scene reveals that he doesn’t even have authority over a seat on an empty train. His pitiful existence and tenuous sanity begins to further unravel with the existential crises brought on by the arrival of the firm’s newest employee, James Simon – his exact doppelganger. While no one else claims to recognize the resemblance, it is not the replications but the differences between the pair that most trouble Simon. The confident, assertive and immediately popular James doesn’t just possess some of the qualities desired by Simon, but a crassness and arrogance that are unbecoming but we sense lurk within his damaged psyche. Though the two briefly become friends, it is when James successfully makes a pass at Hannah when Simon goes further off the rails.
The Double is a film that gnaws away at you. While I was content in my baffled, though mesmerized, state throughout the experience, it doesn’t offer many answers. What is immediately apparent is the mood, elevated by Ayoade’s ambition and visual panache. Technically, it is excellent, with all of the elements gelling into a splendid sensory cocktail. Ayoade’s use of light and shadow is interesting and there are some wonderful shots that have both flare and purpose. Andrew Hewitt’s piano and violin heavy score is also an outstanding facet.
Ayoade’s influences are clear, but he has given them a unique spin. The Double has elements of Fight Club, Berberian Sound Studio and most obviously Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. While clearly derivative, Ayoade’s film still feels fresh and original, rarely evolving as one expects. Whether the ending proves to be satisfying is entirely up to the individual but everyone will be asking the same questions throughout: Is James just a figment of Simon’s imagination, a manifestation of intense unhappiness and discontent? Is Simon the genuine good guy in all this? It is all left open-ended.
Simon laments that he isn’t a real man, comparing himself to Pinocchio on several occasions. When James starts to wreak havoc he becomes Simon’s puppet master, provoking retaliation completely alien to Simon’s character. His string of hopelessness is the source of amusement early on, but there is an undercurrent of suppressed rage and dangerous levels of frustration beneath his timid, passive exterior.
We have all, at some point, had the desire to be someone else or to act the complete opposite for a single day and see what happens. If you met that person on the street, how would you react? Would they be your friend? Would you hate them? Simon gets to meet his double – a version of himself he wouldn’t dare let out, but is fascinated to observe. How would this interaction affect who you are? These are just some of the questions that arise throughout this film, which are all part of its appeal. The plot gets quite chaotic (and confusing) in the latter half, but Ayoade never seems to relinquish his control. More of a thriller than a comedy – the trailer emphasizes its comedic elements – The Double often shares tones and sharply alternates them within the same scene. It refuses to be tied down, never revealing where it is going next or explaining where it has been.
Ayoade’s IT Crowd co-star Chris O’Dowd and almost the entire cast of Submarine appear here, often for mere seconds in amusing cameos. Great to see them all on board to fill a role for their good friend. Eisenberg is great; as is Wasikowska, save for her curiously wandering accent at times.
Did I fully comprehend The Double? No. Will I continue to enjoy puzzling over the questions it leaves unanswered? Yes. Ayoade has crafted a fascinating film that is distinctly disquieting and haunting, an aesthetically complex work rich in detail that has continued to demand another look.
Andrew Buckle – follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22