The Double is one of the strangest movies I’ve seen in a long time. Based (I can only assume loosely) on a novella by Dostoevsky, it creates a bizarre world that reminded me of the corporate dystopia in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. The Double is not as overtly science fiction as that film, but it certainly leans in that direction. It is also brilliantly satirical and darkly funny, with an amazing dual performance by Jesse Eisenberg.
Eisenberg stars as Simon James, an introverted and meek office drone at a faceless corporation. Despite working diligently at his data entry job for years, his boss (Wallace Shawn) doesn’t register his existence and the guard won’t believe this unmemorable man is even an employee. He is also invisible to Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), the girl in the apartment across the courtyard that he has been pining over for ages. While not content with being invisible he seems incapable of any assertive action. His world is thrown into disarray by the arrival at his job of James Simon (also Eisenberg). James is physically identical to Simon but is all the things he’s not: confident, outgoing, ebullient. He moves in above Hannah, and it seems at first that Simon and James might become friends, with James helping Simon attack the attention of Hannah and Simon helping James at the job he is obviously unqualified for. Things take a dark turn when James begins to romance Hannah for himself and take credit for Simon’s work projects.
All the elements in Richard Ayoade’s film work perfectly to create a surreal alternative universe unlike any I’ve ever seen. This world is devoid of sunlight; the company for which Simon works seems to be underground with pumped in air and dim, sickly light, with all the exterior action happening at night. The production design suggests a futuristic society that stalled developmentally in the 1940’s; all the computers and machines are great, bulky metallic things that emit bursts of industrial noise at all times. The film is dark, but intentionally so, with shadow playing an integral part in the mood of the film. From the first shots of Eisenberg on a subway train the cinematography by Erik Wilson is incredibly evocative.
Even if he had just been playing the one part the performance by Eisenberg is terrific. His Simon is tortured, insecure, paranoid, and desperate to break out of his shell but powerless to do so. Add in his portrayal of James, who is not just Simon’s opposite in personality but in mannerism and physical presence, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he finds himself with an Oscar nod next year (of course, I thought the same thing when Edward Norton played twin brothers in Leaves of Grass, so what do I know?) The supporting players are equally good, with Wasikowska portraying Hannah as a seemingly delicate flower with hidden passions as powerful as Simon’s are.
The tone of the film is darkly comic, with the dream logic of a nightmare. The world does in fact seem to be conspiring against Simon to an almost absurd degree. I’ll not say any more of the plot than I already have, except that it does seem to take a turn for the supernatural at the end. A part of me suspects that a great deal of what happens might be only in Simon’s mind, though there are no blatant hints at that. It’s just a feeling, one of many that I had during this film. It is not for everyone, but it is the best film I’ve seen this year.