In this loose adaptation of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel of the same name, young British director Richard Ayoade has certainly made his intentions clear. The Double is a highly ambitious project, created by someone determined to test the conventions of cinematic realism. Glum, violent, and played out on a knife’s edge, this film is bound to split viewers as it does its central character.
Ayoade has lined up an impressive cast: Jesse Eisenberg and Mia Wasikowska are brilliant actors, and they are both able to convey a captivating sense of unease in their own skin. There is an attractive yet unsettling quality to Eisenberg’s fidgety, snarky demeanor, and Wasikowska’s innocence inflamed by a sharp perceptiveness. Their characters are well realized versions of Kafkaesque proletarian anonymity. As workers in a nightmarish factory, designed as a tunnel-like structure depressingly similar to the subway of their commute, Simon James (Eisenberg) and Hannah (Wasikowska) are cogs in a grinding industrial machine.
Routine is tensely disrupted by the arrival of James Simon, Eisenberg’s doppelgänger, who is both his mirror image and his inversion. Where Simon is shy and reticent, James is confident and sexually appealing, accounting for all of his double’s deficits and attracting Hannah, the object of both their affections. Recognizing the self as “other” is a familiar enough trope, and it is essential that the similarities between the two men are unseen by everyone else. Simon is a character on the fringes of visibility, constantly defined in terms of his own lack, whereas James is the apple of everyone’s eye.
There is something bitter and unfeeling pervading the atmosphere, with shots starkly rendered in poorly lit interiors and bleak, industrial aesthetics. David Lynch’s name has cropped up in several reviews, with Eraserhead in particular cited as an influence. I was put more in mind of Lynch’s Factory photographs, recently exhibited at The Photographer’s Gallery in London, which display the same kind of looming urban limits: infrastructure that is both imposing and claustrophobic. But I am far from convinced that Ayoade is “the new Lynch.” The Double has none of the kaleidoscopic contortions in space and time that give a vital, strange energy to Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire. For all its nodding to surrealist modes, it feels unsure of its own generic placement.
This creates a problem with pacing, and it is one from which this film does not recover. There is a general sense of lurking, self-directed violence but there is little by way of tonal variation. Eisenberg’s character(s) suffer from the paradox of the mirror image that attempts to reclaim the original. Both Simon and James seem to be surface projections, two sides of a hollow coin. Ayoade shows us anger and resentment, but without passion and warmth, these displays are mere shadow-play.
The undercurrents of art house experimentation fail to inject The Double with some much-needed spark. It is a resolutely dark piece, set entirely inside or at night, and ultimately becomes mired in its own mirror logic. Simon and Hannah’s romantic narrative is quickly overshadowed by the torment inflicted on Eisenberg by his self-image, the nexus of this dystopian vision’s irresolvable crisis of identity. The Double is well-acted and underpinned by intriguing ideas, but I found it a strangely slow and discomforting watch, hampered perhaps by the image of the better film it might have been.
Director: Richard Ayoade
Writer: Richard Ayoade, Avi Korine
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Mia Wasikowska, Wallace Shawn, Noah Taylor, Yasmin Page, Sally Hawkins, James Fox
Release Date: May 9, 2014