Three weeks ago, I watched Denis Villeneuve’s “Enemy”(2013), an odd movie about a man shocked and then disturbed by the discovery of someone who looks exactly like him. And now I have watched “The Double”, whose story also deals with identity crisis through a similar surreal premise revolving around two main characters with the uncanny resemblance to each other. Although it has a fair share of unanswered questions in the end like the former did, I was more entertained by the latter, and I enjoyed its interesting visual style and black humor on the whole even while finding its plot a little too murky at times.
Based on Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novella with the same name, the movie tells the story of Simon James(Jesse Eisenberg), a meek clerk working in some government agency. Even though he is surrounded by a bunch of other employees who look far older than him, he is virtually nobody to everyone at his dim, shabby workplace, and he is always pushed or blocked by many things including a hostile gate guard who does not recognize him at all despite his diligent attendance record, a creaky elevator which sometimes seems to have a personal grudge against him, and his cantankerous boss(Shawn Wallace) who always has a reason to look down on him.
His private life is virtually empty, as reflected by the barren interior of his small apartment. Only character personally close to him is his ailing mother, but nothing much is exchanged between them while he is visiting her nursing home, and it recently becomes a little more difficult for him to support his mother due to the increased charge for her stay at the nursing home. He has been interested in a girl living in the other apartment which he can see from the window of his apartment, but he never musters up the courage to approach more actively to Hannah(Mia Wasikowska) even though she works in the same agency where he works.
The urban environment surrounding Simon looks as gloomy as him, while usually being drenched in yellow/brownish lights and bleak shadows. The time and background of the story are not exactly specified, but its world seems to be stuck in a time period around the 20th century, and you see many old-fashioned electronic devices here and there on the screen. We frequently notice those good old cathode ray tube TVs around the characters in the film, and a copy machine in one scene looks more like a dry cleaning machine(and it takes more than 10 seconds to get a copy, by the way).
Along with its darkly amusing moments of bureaucratic nightmare which will remind you of the works of Franz Kafka and George Orwell, this world is not so far from those memorable dystopian worlds we have seen from “Nineteen Eighty-Four”(1984) or “Brazil”(1985). In such an oppressive environment which has been suppressing him for years, Simon keeps being frustrated with how things around him do not go well everyday, but, as shown in the opening scene, he only responses to his various small and big troubles with passive frustration, and Hannah seems to be out of his reach no matter how much he feebly tries to be a little closer to her.
And then, on one day, something unbelievable happens. A new guy comes in the agency, and he just looks like Simon except his personality which is exactly opposite to Simon’s. James Simon, also played by Jesse Eisenberg, is a brash and confident guy, and you can easily sense right from his first appearance that he is a sort of guy who always gets whatever he wants.
Simon is certainly shocked by this, and he is more confounded to see that nobody really seems to notice how much Simon and James resemble each other, and that aspect painfully reminds Simon of his nearly anonymous status at the workplace. Whenever he is with James, his introverted personality is always eclipsed by James’s more visible one, and the story becomes more interesting as an odd relationship is formed between Simon and James. They sometimes swap their identities whenever James wants, and James helps Simon getting closer to Hannah at one point, but it becomes clear that James is slowly intruding into Simon’s life – and it increasingly looks like he is going to push Simon out of existence someday.
The lines between Simon and James start to get disrupted, and it works thanks to Jesse Eisenberg’s engaging duo performance. Eisenberg can be your typical nerdy guy as shown in comedy films like “Zombieland”(2009), but he also can be intense and assured as proved in his Oscar-nominated performance in “The Social Network”(2010), and that talent of his is well utilized here in this film. Besides doing a convincing job of presenting two different characters together on the screen, Eisenberg skillfully captures the disturbing progress glimpsed through the interactions between his characters, and even a simple scene of these two guys walking together side by side has a certain unstable intensity generated from his performance.
Although its finale feels like being no more than an easy exit, “The Double” is still a curious film which impresses us with its mood and performances, and the director/co-screenplay writer Richard Ayoade shows his competent skill in establishing the appropriate atmosphere for his story to show and tell. While the movie is mainly the showcase of Eisenberg’s acting talent, Wallace Shawn and Noah Taylor, who plays a clerk who is a little more friendly to Simon than others, are good actors whom you are always glad to watch, and Mia Wasikowska, who has diligently expanded her range since her breakout role in “Alice in Wonderland”(2010), functions well as a sole warm part in the story.
Compared to “Enemy”, which maintains its distant, glacial attitude all the time while doing almost nothing other than confounding me, “The Double” is more direct about its similar subject in comparison while giving more elements to enjoy and appreciate, and I was especially amused by its odd choices of music on its soundtrack. A Korean song being played over the end credit of a British film is certainly not something you encounter everyday, you know.