The doppelganger myth is a venerable one that has frequently surfaced in literature and occasionally in the movies. The most famous cinematic treatment was probably one of the earliest (if one excludes the many trick films that duplicated their actors), The Student of Prague, and the legend also provided Roger Moore with one of his better parts in little-seen sleeper The Man Who Haunted Himself. Surprisingly, the premise seems to have occurred more frequently on television, possibly because it lends itself to dramatic conflicts that are best resolved in the half-hour or hour long format. Most notable among them are two superb episodes of the Twilight Zone, “Mirror Image” and “Nervous Man in a Four Dollar Room,” the Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode “The Curious Case of Mr. Pelham” and one of the better episodes of the revived Twilight Zone, “Shatterday,” adapted by Harlan Ellison from his outstanding short story and featuring a fine performance by Bruce Willis. The Double, written and directed by Richard Ayoade from a novella by Fyodyr Dostoyevsky, and starring Jesse Eisenberg, ably demonstrates that the inherent dramatic promise and conflicts in the doppelganger premise are well extendable to feature length, providing one of the best such cinematic treatments of the idea to date.
Wisely, Ayoade has retained Dostoyevsky’s main themes of the individual trying to maintain his sanity and identity within a rigid hierarchical bureaucracy while moving away from the novella’s mid-19th century Russian setting. Instead of transporting it to a recognizable present-day location, however, Ayoade places his narrative within a surreal world that exaggerates its conditions. Meek office underling Simon (Jesse Eisenberg) makes a daily (although it seems to be perpetual night) subway trek to his workplace, which resembles a cross between those of Brazil and Fight Club. Office equipment consists of an amalgation between hi-tech and retro-style (as in both Brazil and Blade Runner), Simon is one of the few workers who seems to be not past retirement age, and the brick-and-mortar walls of the workplace make it look like an extension of the subway station itself. All the while, tyrannical boss Papadoulos (Wallace Shawn, in a deliberately over-the-top-performance) glowers over everyone and makes Simon the brunt of his anger. It’s no wonder he’s unable to express himself emotionally to anyone, colleagues and strangers alike, much less the pretty Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), who he has been trying to approach. He experiences no solace at home either, living a secluded life in the most dreary-looking apartment since that featured in Eraserhead; outside, industrial chimneys billow great big clouds of yellow smoke as in The Red Desert, and suicides occurring at the building right adjacent to his window have become so frequent, that a separate police squad has been formed just to take care of them. In short, this is the perfect environment for someone to lose their identity and individuality, and that’s just what happens when James (also Eisenberg) enters the picture. He looks just like Simon, but his affectations are different; he’s cockier, more confident, and is actually possessed of a degree of social competence. At first, James merely tries to move in on Simon’s place in the company, and the latter doesn’t put up much resistance; it’s not like he’s happy to be a part of it in the first place. Then James tries to get more personal in his attempts at taking over Simon’s life, including trying to be more assertive with Hannah, and taking credit for Simon’s work at the office. Big mistake. That’s when Simon decides that his own personal identity is something worth fighting for, but it may be already too late.
Ayoade’s decision to create a distinct setting midway between science-fiction and fantasy for his plot and characters works ingeniously on several levels. For one thing, it distinguishes it from other doppelganger stories which were about supernatural intrusion into the real world; here the double seems like an organic, natural part of the environment in which it appears, and instead of being seemingly unbeatable like earlier film doubles, it must follow its laws. Consequently, this heightens the dramatic conflict between the “two” main characters, who are interlocked in a struggle for survival in which only one may win. Additionally, Eisenberg’s characters, despite being physically identical and usually dressed in the same attire, are perceived as being distinctly and recognizably different by the other characters and are treated as such throughout the film. This seems both impossible and illogical, but it makes perfect thematic sense as well as perfectly plausible by the sort of rules the film’s universe works by. The only way Simon can realize the importance of asserting his own individuality is watching his own mirror image being treated the way he should be treated. And since he can only be defined in this universe by his role in a bureaucracy, he realizes that he can’t let James take his place in it, even though he’d remain low on the totem while James would only uses his hard work as a means to elevate himself. It’s a very effective twist on the usual treatment of the premise.
And finally, there’s Eisenberg’s performance . These sort of dual roles are always tricky for an actor, as it’s not enough to merely create and delineate two separate characters, but to somehow express the emotional and psychological similarities as well as the differences. The character(s) and situation are most similar to that in “Nervous Man in a Four Dollar Room” where Joe Mantel’s mirror image-similarly a more strong willed version of his emotionally weak and battered “real-life” counterpart-desperately tries to take over both their lives in order to rectify a life of submission and failure before they are both completely ruined. The major difference is that there is no self-altruism involved in The Double; James is clearly a separate personality of his own who intends to submerge Simon’s completely in the name of self-interest. Eisenberg does a brilliant job of establishing both his characters and the bond between them, with help from the special effects and editing department. Scenes where the two are walking side by side, James walking tall and confident while Simon tries to follow his every step in an effort to match him, are especially effective in their subtle conveying of the relationship between the two. Eisenberg gets us to identify with Simon as someone who we have all felt like at our most helpless, while James is someone we have recognized all too well as inhabiting our workplaces and classrooms, the borderline sociopath who doesn’t care who suffers as long he gets what he feels he is entitled to. Ironically, Simon can only break the bonds of submissiveness not through James himself, but by confronting him head-on, when he fights for what he thinks he deserves as well. This mean not just credit for his work, but the woman he covets, making him already closer to James than he thinks in his treatment of other people. What makes James such a chilling character is not that he embodies the sort of traits we have submerged in us, but that he represents precisely the sort of personalities we simultaneously despise to witness yet wish we could be more like in terms of self-confidence and assertiveness. Hopefully, all those complaining about Eisenberg being cast as Lex Luthor will be able to see his work in The Double and be persuaded that he’s not just an actor of suitable intelligence and maturity, but that he is capable of pulling off a cerebral villain or anti-hero very well indeed.
If there is a major weakness in The Double, it’s that as one may have surmised from the plot summary, there is a tad of derivativeness in the proceedings. It’s a technical and narrative triumph on the part of director Richard Ayoade, but stylistically, he seems in love with David Fincher’s murky green filters, with the occasional deep beige and dirty gray to interrupt the monochrome color scheme. In addition to many of the other films (and their director’s other works) cited earlier, Ayoade seems to owe a particularly large debt to Roman Polanski; although you will likely be most reminded of The Tenant while watching the film, both Repulsion and Chinatown also come to mind while viewing it and I even detected a faint whiff of Rosemary’s Baby. Still, The Double works very on its own individual merits (no pun intended) and I am definitely looking forward to future films by Ayoade.