Flix is a weekly series that reviews a movie available on Netflix. This week, I review the 2013 film “The Double.”
Movies are like literature in their ability to reinvent reality. Films can fling us into other times and other dimensions; films can rewrite history, reconstruct society and warp the world around us. But most perplexing of all, films, like literature, can manipulate us without our knowing it. Like a truly great book, a truly great film can slyly reel us into its own peculiar, fictitious universe. Once emerged in this new reality, we find ourselves participating with the story almost involuntarily (phenomena a humanities professor would refer to as “suspension of disbelief” or “aesthetic distance”). To put it simply, films often take creative license in their depictions of reality. But like literature, films know that their depictions of reality are not arbitrary or meaningless. By twisting or distorting reality, films can vividly depict the implicit sentiments we all share (the so-called “human condition”). And in the annals of modern cinema, few films depict the human condition quite like Richard Ayoade’s film “The Double.” Although “The Double” may not be considered a “truly great” film by any measure, the film is still pretty great nonetheless.
Based on an existential short story by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, the film centers around Simon James (played by Jesse Eisenberg), a timid, unappreciated office worker. His monotonous life is disturbed when he meets James Simon (also played by Eisenberg), his confident, manipulative doppelgnger. As the plot unfolds, Simon struggles to assert his individuality as James gradually steals his identity and takes over his life.
Although “The Double” may be adapted from Dostoyevsky, director Richard Ayoade (whom you may know from his other film “Submarine”) gives the film a palpable Kafkaesque element. While the film’s premise is totally surreal, we somehow relate to Simon’s struggle. As we watch his character fumble through everyday life, we somehow know what it is like to feel entrapped in our own meekness and passiveness, and we somehow understand his struggle to regain control of his life from an imposter. At times, it is almost creepy how relatable Simon’s struggle is; but then again, that eerie familiarity may be Ayoade’s tribute to the subtle emotions of Dostoyevsky’s original text. With its eerie familiarity and strange premise, this modernized tale of existential longing has an impressive absurdist spin that makes the overall story incredibly compelling.
But more remarkable than the story is the film’s aesthetics. The story takes place in a lonely no-noir, retro-futuristic metropolis, a setting creepily akin to old Fritz Lang expressionist films. Several times throughout the film, Ayoade takes a second to focus on things like a printer or a gaming console to show how these mundane objects are translated into this highly stylized universe. Although the brooding, lonely tone of the city matches the brooding, lonely tone of the plot, one cannot help but notice the peculiar mechanical beauty of this industrial, labyrinthian landscape.
Eisenberg gives a nuanced performance as both Simon James and James Simon (don’t confuse the two). He masterfully utilizes the most subtle facets of human behavior to differentiate the film’s protagonist from its antagonist, giving both characters depth and realism. Although the two characters look exactly the same, the audience never feels bewildered or confused because Eisenberg has so cleverly delineated the distinctions in their personalities. Eisenberg’s costar Mia Wasikowska also gives a strong performance as Hannah, Simon’s love interest and James’ innocent hookup. Through her character, she finds the delicate balance between loneliness and standoffishness. Like Simon, she feels isolated in a strange, apathetic world, yet feels too insecure to give Simon the time of day.
While the film’s strong acting and distinct aesthetics work to create an intriguing, albeit brooding, atmosphere, the film’s soundtrack further punctuates the story’s eerie tone. Composed for the film by Andrew Hewitt, the film’s theme sounds reminiscent of romantic composers like Beethoven or Dvorak (especially Dvorak). The soundtrack perfectly accents the film’s forewarning. While the audience is unaware of James’ manipulative tendencies and Simon’s gradual descent into madness, the soundtrack underscores this sense of imminence that is quietly brooding beneath the film’s surface.
As intelligent as it is entertaining, “The Double” manages to strike the careful line between absurdity and familiarity. Although few moviegoers noticed the film’s existence last year, the darkly fascinating tale of “The Double” is well worth a watch. Richard Ayoade’s latest film is an astonishing reminder that there is in fact a right way to adapt literature to film.