A modicum of effort is required to penetrate The Double, Richard Ayoade’s follow up to the stellar Submarine (TMT Review). I’ll call it “Rewarding Confusion,” where perplexity is paramount and sympathy is tenuous. There is a twisted logic in The Double that needs to be unraveled, but the kinks of that logic are what make it intriguing and beguiling. It mirrors the disorientation one must experience when the line between identity and insanity begins to blur.
A jittery Jesse Eisenberg braces the story as Simon, a morally dubious loner who crunches data at a quixotic, Orwellian company. Piling on the fascist overtones, Simon lives in a hovel in a dreary compound that seems an extension of his workplace, as does Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), his coworker and the object of his obsession. He is so infatuated with Hannah that he watches her through a telescope from his window and digs through trash to retrieve her scraps. This nightly routine is interrupted, however, when a jumper from a neighboring apartment waves at him, setting off a series of strange events. Most notably, the appearance of his doppelganger, James (also played by Eisenberg), who becomes the company’s newest employee. Brash, confident and shrewd, James has all the traits that Simon lacks, and everyone but Simon is enamored with him. And he has good reason to be wary, because this interloper manipulates people as if hypnotizing them.
James knows that Simon is reluctant and confounded, and he uses that opportunity to manhandle the original copy. The treatment of Simon, and his subsequent submission, is an exemplar of escalating horror. What begins with a request for a bit of cheating — in return for purported matchmaking — ends in a total loss of autonomy. It is the stuff of fever dreams and clinical paranoia. Perhaps most terrifying, beyond the idea of a simulacrum taking over your life, is the plausibility of the malevolence perpetrated by James. Blackmail, theft, betrayal — all cutthroat business tactics that are, appropriately, duplicitous. Simon is weak prey, and in the lawless state of human intercourse, the meek are dominated. For the timid mark susceptible to exploitation, the actualization of their deep-seated fear of depersonalization is pure sadism.
I have described The Double to friends as thoroughly dark, and while calling anything dark can be reductive, Ayoade’s bleakness has a broad palette. The lighting is sparse and the cubicles are tight, but the jokes are witty and absurdity is everywhere. There is a police division devoted entirely to suicides and there is a mystical TV show with low-rent, 80s effects. There’s also the always entertaining Wallace Shawn as Simon’s vociferous boss. So the commingling of despair with these elements allows for some relief, but it is otherwise an unsettling affair. Case in point: As Simon is descending further and further into schizophrenic madness, a repulsed Hannah tells him he should just kill himself. That’s pretty unsupportive.
With all its merits, I could not shake the feeling that I had seen this movie a few times before. Indeed, there are many hallmarks of the genre’s predecessors, particularly in the industrial environment, but Ayoade has the confidence and brio of outstanding filmmakers and refuses to let the narrative slacken; he upholds its demands. His idiosyncrasies trace back to his roots in comedy and are an expression of his predilections. Some of his success can also be attributed to the supporting cast: British actors that have earned their ubiquity. Sally Hawkins, Chris O’Dowd, and Paddy Considine all have minor roles, and Noah Taylor, the English equivalent of John Hawkes, is indispensable. An honest confidante, he summarizes Simon’s dilemma casually and succinctly: Simon is basically a nonperson.