Richard Ayoade’s darkly comic adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s 1846 novel features compelling performances from Jesse Eisenberg in the double role of Simon James/James Simon. Set in an oppressively bleak, daylight-deprived dystopia, the film chronicles Simon’s disintegration after an identical ‘twin’ appears in his life. The film’s look and sound are a triumph of imagination over budget and its indie credentials are further boosted by cameos from Wallace Shawn, Chris Morris, Paddy Considine and J. Mascis from Dinosaur Jr.
The first scene is really a summary of the whole film. Simon is sitting in a near-deserted underground train, when a stranger tells him ‘you’re in my place’. His face is hidden by The Daily Pages – headline: ‘Collapse’. Simon meekly makes way for him, then has trouble exiting the train, contriving to lose his briefcase (and ID) in the jaws of its sliding doors.
Eisenberg is an expert at portraying tongue-tied awkwardness. We feel Simon’s helplessness as he is undervalued at work and misunderstood by Hannah, the girl he is obsessed with (Mia Wasikowski). When his alter-ego appears, the confident and charming ‘James’ effortlessly sweeps all before him: he is an immediate success at work; he gets the girls; he gets Simon’s girl. As Simon’s anxiety increases, so the industrial noise in the soundtrack (shades of David Lynch’s Eraserhead) gets louder. The two men dress the same; they have the same haircuts and faces, but to Simon’s frustration, his colleagues don’t seem to notice. It’s a tribute to Eisenberg’s performances that we can tell immediately which is which when they are together – the differences are subtle and nuanced, rather than loud and obvious.
Ayoade’s claustrophobic dystopian world was created in an abandoned underground site in Berkshire. Hence the film’s lack of daylight. The only outdoor shots are at a midnight funeral. Its dingy corridors and flats call to mind 1984 and the nightmarish office is like something out of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil – a huge photocopier with grey duct tubes roars and shudders like a weaving loom. Lifts are always on the blink; small TVs show a camp science fiction programme with a clunky synth soundtrack; train platforms have soup machines.
As if these things weren’t enough to get Simon down, he has to contend with scorn from his fellow human beings. Much of the film’s comedy derives from Simon’s supposed inadequacies. An alarming woman with Bjork bunches at his mother’s nursing home tells him: ‘You’re not right. Your mother says you’re a strange boy.’ The mistress of the photocopier room says ‘the creepy guy’s here again’. ‘You’re a bit of a non-person,’ comments his double, ‘pretty unnoticeable.’ A bureaucrat tells him: ‘you don’t exist anymore. According to the system you have never existed.’ It’s enough to make you want to kill yourself. ‘You’re not thinking of killing yourself, are you?’ asks a detective with the suicide (splat) squad. ‘Put him down as a maybe,’ says his colleague.
At first Simon has fun with his double. He enjoys the vicarious thrill of seeing James do everything that he wishes he could – be rude to waitresses, spit in the street, headbutt a thug in a bar, charm the girls with his gift of the gab. He also opens up to his doppelganger, telling him he feels like Pinocchio – ‘I’m a wooden boy, not a real boy’. Simon carries his double home when he passes out and tenderly touches his cheek as he sleeps. But the more James usurps him in his life, the more desperate and bewildered Simon becomes.
The Double is about the importance of identity. Does James really exist? Does he represent Simon’s dark side, the id lurking in his subconscious? Is it all a nightmare? Is he a schizophrenic? There is no simple answer, but thanks to Jesse Eisenberg’s riveting performances, the film’s angst-ridden psychological journey is a fascinating one.