Few things are more uniformly unnerving—across genres, cultures, mediums, and time periods—than the image of the doppelganger. Richard Ayoade’s particular tale of uncanny similitude is adapted from a Dostoevsky novella (the second thing he ever published) written shortly after he resigned from the Russian military in 1846. Pre-modern Russia (on the other side of two revolutions and two world wars) is a far distant place from Ipswich, England, where Ayoade was raised, or Jesse Eisenberg’s East Brunswick, New Jersey, yet the bone-deep anxiety clearly affects all three. Ayoade’s adaptation is eerie and chilling, charming and funny, surreal and oddly suspenseful, but at its heart is the discomfort that comes from a quality that Freud called the “Unheimliche” (literally un-home-like)—the opposite of what is familiar.
Director: Richard Ayoade
Producers: Michael Caine, Graeme Cox, Amina Dasmal, Robin C. Fox, Tessa Ross, Polly Stokes, Natascha Wharton, Nigel Williams
Writers: Richard Ayoade, Avi Korine, Fyodor Dostoevsky (novella)
Cinematography: Erik Wilson
Editing: Nick Fenton
Music: Andrew Hewitt
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Mia Wasikowska, Noah Taylor, Chris O’Dowd, Sally Hawkins, Craig Roberts, Gemma Chan, Wallace Shawn, Paddy Considine, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith
Premiere: September 7, 2013 – Toronto International Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: May 9, 2014
US Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
The Double opens on Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg) and his lonely, depressing, down-on-his-luck life. A meek fellow who wears his muted button-downs buttoned all the way to the collar, Simon is introduced sitting in a near-empty subway car on his way to work, when someone tells him, “You’re in my place.” Doormat that he is, and trying to avoid unnecessary confrontation, Simon gets up and through a series of happenstance annoyances, ends up losing his briefcase in the closing doors of the subway. For much of the film, Simon is simply a shy young man being dumped on by the malicious hand of fate. At times it’s hard to watch, since the film’s empathy for Simon is only matched by the cruelty he suffers.
Working as a clerk in a large corporation, Simon’s life revolves around his dreary desk in a Brazil-esque windowless expanse of gray cubicles, his ailing hospitalized mother, and the time he spends at home gazing longingly at Hannah (Mia Wasikowska)—the pretty girl who lives across the courtyard from his apartment window—through his handy telescope. Cinematic allusions abound, and seeing Jesse Eisenberg poised like Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window is oddly satisfying. Simon is too shy to talk to Hannah, happy to watch her from afar, and constantly demoralized by nearly everyone around him, particularly his severely bureaucratic boss (Wallace Shawn) and an antagonistic security guard (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith). Just when the misery of Simon’s life seems likely to crush him (or us watching and empathizing), his doppelganger appears on the scene. James Simon (also played by Eisenberg) is everything that Simon James is not, charming, bold, arrogant, dishonest, and forward—telling dirty jokes, brashly ordering food not on the menu, and seducing every woman within spitting distance.
Eisenberg is incredible in the two roles, demonstrating just how much posturing, movement, and minute changes in facial expression can drastically transform appearance. Despite their identical costuming, there is never a doubt about which Eisenberg occupies the screen; he so carefully portrays each role that they become two completely distinct characters. In perhaps the most existential of Simon’s many crises, he has to point out to his coworkers that the two resemble each other—they are so far in the sway of James’s bravado that they can’t even see their identical faces, only that James is a star and Simon is forgettably timid—as James callously puts it, Simon is “a bit of a nonperson.”
Unlike in many doppelganger films (Denis Villenueve’s lackluster Enemy comes to mind), the two incarnations interact like people, becoming fast friends despite/because of their strange resemblance. While this, like most things in this film, ends poorly for Simon (due of course to James’s Machiavellian sociopathology) it’s an interesting development. But the two don’t immediately come to blows in that classic video game trope of fighting against one’s shadow self. Instead of cliché this brings out a fascinating thought experiment—what if you could be friends with a more confident version of yourself? What would it be like? What could you learn from this braver self? And the dialogue in these scenes is delightfully witty—this may be our only chance to see Eisenberg play off of himself and his comic timing is perfect.
Perhaps more interesting than any of the characters themselves, though, is Ayoade’s subtly portrayed dystopian setting. Never a focus of the film, it is fascinating to see the restrained clues to just how bad this world is. Everything is painted in a late-soviet olive drab and seems dingy and poorly maintained. A police force is devoted exclusively to investigating suicides (when two of them interview Simon after he witnesses a suicide, they tell him they can barely manage to cover two blocks of the city). And the aesthetic choices are equally stark; lighting is uniformly low, inviting shadowy corners in every space we visit, and we never see the sun—everything happens either in seemingly subterranean worlds or at nighttime. The darkness is so heavy and constricting that every space feels as tightly limited as Simon’s depressing existence. The only flashes of color we get are in the TV shows popular in this dreary society, featuring bright soap opera sets, space blasters, and lines that could have been pulled from the harshest hardboiled detective.
The film is satisfyingly strange and an incredible showing of talent from Eisenberg—probably too low budget to earn him an Oscar nod, but his performance certainly warrants it. The ending is oddly satisfying, more surreal than anything else (and certainly less of a downer than Dostoevsky’s original in which the protagonist suffers a psychotic break and is dragged away to an asylum). The plot suffers a little from trying too hard to be a parable—replacing some characters and interactions with archetypes to make the story more universally applicable—but in most cases it is successful. It feels strangely out of date, like the film should have been made decades ago, but that only adds to the uncanniness at its core. It’s a stunning sophomore effort from Ayoade and hopefully bodes well for more interesting and strange work to come.