The Double is a brilliant work of psychological horror that inhabits the mental illness of isolation while it deconstructs the masculine identity. If that sounds too pretentious, as it damned well should, The Double is an absolutely stunning example of the ability of cinematography and production design to create a nightmare world that is as compelling as it is repellant. Since that's still a mite too stuffy, how about this: The Double is an arthouse Fight Club for the 21st century, that looks like Dark City, and involves Jesse Eisenberg being an asshole to himself (and everyone else) for a solid hour and a half, and it's really great.
Directed by Richard Ayoade
Written by Avi Korine and Richard Ayoade (based on the novel by Fyodor Dostoyevsky)
With Jesse Eisenberg (Simon James), Jesse Eisenberg (James Simon), Mia Wasikowska (Hannah), Noah Taylor (Harris), and Wallace Shawn (Mr. Papadopoulos)
Spoiler alert: mild
We'll note at the outset that I have never read much more than a synopsis' worth of Dostoyevsky's The Double. I imagine it follows the same pattern as Notes From the Underground, which is to say that it I expect it to be about as readable as the scrawlings in John Doe's notebooks, until such time as a reasonably affecting plot about social alienation finally kicks in, far too many pages from the beginning for the reader to be expected to care. Maybe this is unfair, but that's why you should never force people to read novels. Death to the liberal arts.
Just look at Simon. He's got a STEM degree, and he's happy.
Well, he's employed, anyway. Although, on reflection, even that's not the surest thing.
Simon is just one more interchangeable cog, living in the inoffensively steampunk neverwhere that is his world, one so socially atomizing and clinically depressing that the police have a dedicated suicide division. Everyone is a wage slave, no one has any friends, and it's perpetually night; essentially, it's America in 2014, except in The Double no one ever bothered to invent the Internet. (I have categorized this film as horror.)
Simon works for a data processing firm, in an office from 1927, on computers from 1967, wearing a suit from 1984, specifically April 24, 1984, when Stop Making Sense was released. His main job duty appears to be streamlining business analytics for Joh Fredersen. His favorite hobby is spying on Hannah, a coworker from the copy room (this firm still has a fully-staffed copy room), who lives across the street from his abysmal apartment and doesn't close her blinds. His second favorite hobby is going through her trash. Loveable losers have been made out of less before—but certainly not much less. The Double does not try, subverting expectations that Simon is "the good one," early and often.
Such a fellow could only ever appear to be the good one in comparison to a much worse one, and so we see. This is Simon's perfect doppelganger, down to the awful suit, who appears suddenly, moves in across the street above Hannah, and takes a position at Simon's firm.
His name is James, and he manages to do everything that Simon cannot: achieve success at work; achieve success with women; be liked; be respected; be visible; be acknowledged. Adding surreal insult to injury, in the bad dreamscape of The Double, everyone else barely notices they're both Jesse Eisenberg.
James first poses as a friend and confidante, but seizing upon Simon's weakness, exploits him for everything he can, soon becoming the worst enemy Simon could possibly have. Simon, seemingly trapped by fate, witnesses his double—demonstrably stupider, demonstrably lazier, demonstrably less sensitive—take everything that he knows he should have gotten. And, naturally, Simon loses whatever threads of reality he had previously managed to hold onto.
Before proceeding any further, allow me a moment or three to praise the technical merits of The Double, because it is the technical merits that elevate it from an elaborate actor's exercise, based upon an engaging and disturbing parable, to a genuinely great film.
The cinematography, production design, sound design, and music combine to create a fantastic dystopia wherein the happenstance of The Double, which reaches cartoonishly inhuman extremes, nonetheless maintains a certain dream-logic plausibility. (It's at this moment I'd use an adjective like "Lynchian" if I felt my neglected education in the director's works gave me any right to.)
I don't get critics. This doesn't look anything at all like Dune.
The Double is painted from a palette of engulfing blacks, vomitous greens, and hepatitic yellows, with the occasional discordant blue. The result is a universe where everything seems infected and decayed. The human objects in the film either look like they're already corpses, or they look like they will be soon—an impression assisted immensely by a background cast of extras that is positively septagenarian. Hannah, as the beneficiary of Simon's crush, appears to us as the least scathed of anyone, but even Mia Wasikowska is less like porcelain than she is like a merely more comforting vision of death.
Meanwhile, James, Simon, their co-workers and bosses are outright jaundiced. Even their eyes look grayed, and every now and again the red hues of Eisenberg's skin bloom with so much crimson-orange that it looks like he's bleeding right out of his pores.
This is, of course, when the people in The Double are not overwhelmed by shadow altogether.
The sound editing sometimes veers into the deliberately incorrect, as with misdubbed, all-too-loud footsteps; the soundtrack is split, between ordinary non-diagetic incidental music on one hand, and possibly-diagetic machine noises that sound like OMD's "Genetic Engineering" is about to start, but just won't, on the other. On the third, unexpected hand, there is a frankly staggering amount of definitely-diagetic Japanese pop from the 1960s—the criteria for "staggering" in this circumstance being one Japanese pop song from the 1960s, whereas in The Double there are six. Apparently Kyu Sakamoto is back on top of the charts, only in Hell.
Finally, The Double uses the most advanced technology Lunar Industries has to offer in order to visualize its central concept, and Eisenberg is more than up to the challenge of playing two characters whose principal interactions are with each other.
That said, his accomplishment can (and has been) overstated. The characters are so archetypal, and are so radically different on a superficial level, that developing each role at such a right-angle to the other—and in such straight lines in the first place—does not by any means demand we recognize Eisenberg's achievement to be on the same level as that of Sam Rockwell's far more subtle work in Moon, or even Nic Cage's riff on similar material in Adaptation. But it is an achievement, nevertheless.
And the nature of the achievement is stark: Eisenberg has successfully created the most inescapably on-the-fucking-nose embodiments of "The Nice Guy" and "The Alpha Male" that a human being could have ever possibly written into a narrative film.
You may also know the former as "The Supreme Gentleman."
If you didn't know what these terms meant before, you almost certainly do now, thanks to one Elliot Rodger and another half dozen dead people whose names I never learned, nor did you, because they were not notable monsters—only his victims.
As a heterosexual male who has Internet access and has experienced rejection before (gasp horror!), I was, of course, aware of their definitions and varying usages well in advance. That said, a reader may like to take a moment and reflect that anyone who dogmatically holds truck with the ideals advanced under those terms would probably not also be in the business of highly recommending works of art that they declare to subvert those ideals, even if—when they write reviews of that art—they see fit to make that declaration with a tiny bit of irony in order to shield the film from the impression that it's didactic (which it isn't), and—to a lesser degree—to shield themselves from the impression that they are a pompous ass (which they regrettably are, as this sentence full of a half-dozen nested clauses and the use of the third person amply demonstrates).
But they like to think they're not as bad as this one.
The most interesting thing about The Double—well, the most interesting thing about The Double is still its expressionist combination of lighting and design, which is why I talked about that first. But the second most interesting thing about The Double is its take on this post-modern dichotomy, which is very much in line with its meaner but probably more accurate interpretation: "Nice Guys" are often not really very nice at all.
Yet The Double, as it is a narrative film, can't avoid inviting you to sympathize with its protagonist. And to a degree sympathy for Simon is unavoidable. He is what must be described, for lack of a better phrase, the quintessential creep (that is, unattractive, socially maladjusted, and—crucially—acting on his disappointment in the worst way short of violence); but there remains a sense of oppressing unfairness about him that cannot be totally eradicated. The well-observed scene in which Hannah leverages his affections, which have been made reasonably clear, in order to meet his more-desirable twin, cannot be witnessed without empathizing with him—though it does help if you ignore the stalking. (This moment has the added benefit of exploding the heretofore nearly-certain prospect of the loopy Hannah becoming the manic pixie dream girl that can save Simon, rendering her as an actual living person instead.)
But if we can still see the humanity in Simon, we should not hold our breath waiting for him to return the favor. On a very basic level, Simon and James are the same. James is just the Simon who has left behind self-loathing and shy narcissism for the feigned bravado and extroverted sociopathy that we've been taught is normative masculinity throughout our childhoods, and our adulthoods—and, worse, often by women, too.
Whether nature or nurture, however, neither Simon nor his devilish fetch seems able to or even interested in relating to humans as humans. The key difference between them is in their social outcomes. Simon is maligned and James is lionized, despite each having characters that we despise for exactly the same fundamental cause.
Ultimately, there is suggestion, but only the suggestion, that Simon and James are physically united as well. If you seek a magical realist tale of losers and winners that is as unambiguous as a gunshot wound about their metaphorical union, the aforementioned super-classic that is Fight Club does yet exist, and in that movie they blow up some banks, earning even more bonus points.
As for The Double, it seeks not to explain Simon's spiritual bifurcation with specious (if satisfying) literalism; but so long as you recall that its bent is that of a fable rather than a documentary, it never loses cohesion. The last film I reviewed about a misogynistic man going mad can't make that claim; in fairness, in The Double cohesion did seem to be an actual goal. (Filth was also more aiming to amuse than The Double; though it must be said the equally dark comedy here is only a few steps behind.)
I have, sadly, probably not done a good job of convincing you that this existential horror film is anything but suicidally dour. I promise you this frame coincides with one of the year's very nastiest, very funniest lines.
This is a movie that remains very open to interpretation, and this has, obviously, been mine. It doesn't offer any pat answers to the questions it poses; it proposes no third way. And nobody should expect it to, since to do so would be tantamount to solving Western civilization itself. Unfortunately, we are almost certainly going to have do that with sweat and with tears, if only—one hopes—with less blood.
So, The Double: by my lights, story meets craft here in a manner all but perfect—and I only say "all but" because I have not yet squared its enigmatic ending with what I took to be its ideological point, though I don't know that it absolutely cannot be. Either way, squared or unsquared, The Double is yet another example of 2014 as a true powerhouse year in film.