Review: The Double
Simon James’ life is depressing enough without him being completely ignored. A governmental clerk who travels from a sparse tenement to a meager cubicle in a dank, windowless office building via dark hallways and broken elevators doesn’t lead the most inspiring existence.
What’s more, his mother talks down to him (her friend think Simon’s “a little off”), his boss is oblivious, and a female coworker he adores isn’t particularly receptive. James loses his briefcase on a subway, effectively destroying his identity as far as work is concerned – he isn’t memorable enough a drone to gain access to a place where he has worked for so long.
So as his tangible identification has been lost, he soon becomes to loes his own existential sense of self. Based on the 1849 novella by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Double is a timeless tale full of probable absurdity and discomforting horror about what it like to watch what little meaning and control one perceives in his life own life completely disappear.
The world of Simon James starts its further fall when James Simon appears, the latest hire at this trivial agency, and someone who is the polar opposite of Simon James save for looking exactly like him physically. It is enough to send Simon over the edge, or at least immediately cause him to faint.
Identical in looks but more confident, aggressive, and savvy than his doppelganger, James struts and charms, while James’ protestations can’t be heard, his baggy suit making him a literal shell of a man. Jesse Eisenberg plays both characters, but you can see in his eyes and posture who is who without needing to be prompted.
Simon is such an incidental figure in his world that his coworkers can’t quite see that newcomer James looks exactly like him; one is far more captivating than the other, thus they couldn’t feel and seem and act more differently.
Simon’s deadening spiral into oblivion begins instantly and proceeds slowly, seeping into every facet of his day, as his mediocre life turns to meaninglessness. James gets the attention of the boss, taking credit for Simon’s work and threatening his already tenuous job safety. Entrusted with tutoring the boss’s daughter, Simon’s duty is once again supplanted by James, suave, who uses his sudden clout and resemblance to blackmail Simon.
He even catches the eye of Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), who like Simon wanders aimlessly through a depressing world, but because the doting Simon is so shy, she doesn’t notice how alike they are. They live across from one another in boxy tenements, and he eyes her through a telescope at her nightly habits that involve crafting artwork, which eventually gets ripped up and destroyed.
During one such eavesdropping, he spots a man on a ledge above Hannah’s window. He waves to Simon, jumps, and dies. There is a whole department of police apparently devoted to investigating and tracking suicide for obvious reasons, but Simon’s is too weak-willed to attempt such a thing. Hannah maybe not.
Both Eisenberg and Wasikowska fit perfectly in this shady, angular world one without sun and optimism. He stutters and quietly muses, while she stares blankly; both exist on the precipice of insignificance.
It’s an eerie, both mentally and visually frightening world shrouded in fog and light by the most abrasive and discomforting of fluorescent yellows and oranges. It’s darkly comic too, with an emphasis on the dark, as the swirling black hole surrounding Simon sucks in the audience in what becomes a physically exhausting, mentally-aggravating, and emotionally-draining viewing experience.
Director Richard Ayoade makes the film his own story, altering the final third, but still masterfully captures humankind’s longing for unique identity and validation that was at the heart of the Dostoevsky work. The Double exists in an unknown time and city and though it feels like an 80s metropolis; but its telling in the present: Simon is a face in the crowd wanting to be heard and feeling drowned out by those louder and more manipulative.
Madness permeates through The Double, a perfectly-executed film so aggravatingly tense it sends you as much for a loop as it does Simon.