Film Review: The Double

Double exlusive trailer

We live in an age of anxiety, and good old Dostoyevsky saw it coming: “If there’s no God everything is permitted,” he said in 1880. It is a statement often quoted as a moral warning – a prediction that without the Big G overseeing things man would implode in an orgy of hedonistic chaos. But that wasn’t Fyodor’s main concern – he was much more interested in how a world without meaning, fate, or belief might torture an individual human soul.

Welcome to the 21st Century. “Everything is permitted” is now the gleeful cheer of our consumerist overlords. Enjoy freedom! Enjoy choice! Be anyone you want to be! Unfortunately, for people who don’t particularly like themselves this is a double kick in the guts, because not only have they grown up to be a social clod with all the charisma of a P60, they are now entirely and solely responsible for this state of affairs. Nobody to blame but yourself says the modern world – you chose this miserable destiny. You could easily have been a rock star or spaceman but you ended up sitting in your pants, eating Nutella straight from the jar, writing film reviews nobody reads. What a waste.

So what has all this got to do with The Double? Well, Richard Ayoade’s version of Dostoyevsky’s tale is a masterpiece of exactly this kind of alienated absurdity – a pitch black comedy that looks into the eyes of our hysterical insecurities and laughs like a madman. It is a film that turns abstract psycho-philosophical ideas into a brilliantly self-contained dystopia; a sharply-rendered, swift-moving fable, precise and preposterous.

Mercilessly amusing, The Double finds plenty of dark humour in Dostoyevsky’s disquieting themes: that as science and knowledge hack away at the myths of human meaning, they also hack away at our sanity; that the legacy of the enlightenment, progress and godlessness is psychological tension. We know we are a meaningless speck of crud in a hostile universe, but we can’t really accept it. We feel like we exist as a coherent self, but we are increasingly told we do not.

And so it is with The Double‘s anti-hero Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg) – an unassertive, introverted young man whose passivity makes him virtually invisible to those around him. Referred to by a colleague as ‘kind of a non-person’, Simon is compliant, hardworking and deferential, but it has got him exactly nowhere and the script’s bitter comedy plays on the ludicrousness of worrying about a world that couldn’t care less about you. Hankering after a female colleague who struggles to remember his name, Eisenberg’s performance is note-perfect as a man both baffled and pained by an existence that seems intent on convincing him he is nothing.

Of course the pain of being a nobody is twinned with the fantasy of being a somebody, and The Double gives form to this twin: James Simon, the eponymous mirror image, who appears after Simon is traumatically thrown out of an office party. Physically identical, James is everything Simon is not: confident, assertive, instantly popular with colleagues and women alike. As James seeps into Simon’s life (first as friend, later more maliciously) we witness a collision between two ends of the psychological spectrum: the psychopath who sees the world as an instrument to be used for pleasure, and the ill-at-ease neurotic who feels as if he’s been designed for a different world altogether. There’s a distinct whiff of Fight Club about it all – the eruption of an alter ego in response to bureaucratic anonymity, the identity crisis inherent in a life of Kafkaesque pointlessness – but the film’s carefully controlled tone, tight cinematography, and deadpan commitment to its uncanny subject matter make it superior to even David Fincher’s classic.

The Double is painstakingly crafted, sharply written, and acutely funny. Like the short stories of Joyce or Chekhov, the excellence of the film lies in its expert blend of precise tone, pithy narrative, and the deepest human concerns. No scene is unnecessary, no line of dialogue is wasted, and all is contained within a visual exactness that echoes Gilliam’s Brazil and the virtuoso works of Roy Andersson. Surreal, original and confident, this is the best film of the year so far – a must-see for anyone who understands that if the cosmos is a big joke, we might just be the punch line. After all, if you can’t laugh at the existential void, what can you laugh at?

Gareth Thornton

Image courtesy of The Guardian



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