Richard Ayoade’s THE DOUBLE is one of the best movies of the year. Co-written by the actor / writer / director along with Avi Korine, the film is a contemporary take on Dostoyevsky’s classic novella: the story of a man (Jesse Eisenberg) who gradually finds his life being usurped by a doppelgänger. It’s classic setup, and one which we’ve seen put on the screen a number of times in the last few years alone. Yet Ayoade’s film is so stylized, so different and so tightly constructed that it manages to stand apart in a wonderfully entertaining way.
THE DOUBLE is a darkly comic, surreal nightmare. From the lighting (which is extremely high-contrast and almost noir-esque) to the claustrophobic, dirty and detailed stage design (which recalls early Terry Gilliam, most notably from BRAZIL), you know exactly what kind of movie you’re about to watch from the very first frame. Lights flickering and short-circuiting above his head, a cacophony of sounds surrounding and almost oppressing him, Eisenberg’s Simon James (counterpointed against his doppelgänger’s James Simon) sits alone on a train. Moments later, a faceless passenger appears and announces that Simon is sitting in his spot – despite the fact that every other seat in the car is empty. It’s the perfect opening to a film which relies so heavily on the idea that Simon barely exists, even before his life is taken over by James; as one character so accurately notes, he’s “not very noticeable”. He is wallpaper. He is a ghost.
Eisenberg could not have found a more perfect role(s) for himself than this. Much like Cera’s double-sided turn in YOUTH IN REVOLT, Eisenberg gets a chance to flex both muscles: the ineptly shy, cripplingly introverted Simon, juxtaposed against James’ sociable and nearly sociopathic levels of geniality are the perfect playground for Eisenberg, and he hits it out of the park at every turn. From his stutter and almost unbearable awkwardness to scary levels of extroversion, he treads the whole spectrum with ease.
Ayoade’s visuals are fully complimentary as well. This is one of those rare films that is completely and wholly realized in the best way possible. Faces are constantly obscured – by shadows, by composition, by limbs and objects. They are nearly always revealed from behind something, rather than displayed as a given. In a perfect early example, Simon – his face half-covered by his own arm – slides his face backwards in order to get a better view of a woman in the next train car. In doing so, he reveals the other side of his face, and the simple change between those hemispheres at the presence of this woman is unnerving and revealing of his character.
The film is filled to the brim with absurdist humor, again, much in the style of Terry Gilliam. The bureaucratic nightmare which is Simon’s place of employment is filled with hanging wires, pipes, 50’s-style imaginings of future computers and dimly-lit cubicles. It’s straight out of BRAZIL, sure, but it works here magnificently. Ayoade brings with him his own unique brand of dry, contemporary British humor as well, so the “jokes” come fast and hard. Dialogue exchanges are rapid-fire, each played with a perfectly subtle comedic tone, all desperately revelatory. This is the kind of film where characters openly say what they’re thinking, and the subtext beyond that is more in the abstract than in the literal. It’s all extremely surreal, like a fever dream of another world. A favorite scene involves a pair of detectives whose sole job is to investigate suicides – something which is so rampant in their city that they can barely cover Simon’s neighborhood alone. Their biting dialogue and cool indifference is more revelatory of Simon’s state of mind than of their own.
Because this is definitely a very subjective film. Everything takes place through the eyes of Simon, and it’s hard to know how much of it is a manifestation of his own disturbed mind or whether or not this is just how this world operates. His love-interest / girl that he is obsessed with, Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), even seems to share agency with him. Though she’s clearly on her own path, the way she moves and speaks seem more of a twisted version of reality, filtered through Simon’s off-centered eyes.
The film understandably explores interesting ideas about identity, individuality and other themes which are common to this kind of story, but the true strength of THE DOUBLE isn’t in the story itself – it’s in the way the story is told. Ayoade and his crew have crafted a wonderfully unique and memorable film, and everybody involved brings their A-game. Everything about it is dense, layered, funny, compelling and thought-provoking. It deserves repeat viewings and thorough analysis, something which is rare to see these days. See it as soon as possible.