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'The Double' Movie Review: A Stylish Battle of the Subconscious

First Posted: May 13, 2014 10:08 AM EDT
Movies, The Double, Jesse Eisenberg

Photo : Magnolia

Civil Rights was a major theme that dominated the cinematic landscape in 2013 with such films as "12 Years a Slave," Fruitvale Station" and "Lee Daniels' The Butler." The one-person genre also emerged throughout the year with such hits as "Gravity" and the critically adored "All Is Lost." While these two themes have continued to develop in 2014, another major cinematic motif has become more prominent this year. That theme is the doppelganger as evidenced in such films as "Face of Love" and "Enemy." Another film that has showcased the subject is the recent "The Double."

The film portrays the life of Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg), a simple and lonely young man who works in a government building, has to tend to a dying mother and is seemingly in love with the equally lonely Hannah (Mia Wasikowska). Life is at its all-time worst for poor Simon who seems incapable of expressing his feelings or asserting himself in the public eye. However, it only gets worse when James Simon, a man who looks exactly like Simon, emerges and starts to take over his life. Simon is then faced with the dilemma of fighting back for his life and making sure that he does not become a complete nonentity.

In his debut film "Submarine," director Richard Ayoade managed to use a rather colorful style to elevate a coming-of-age story. That film was filled with vibrancy despite often hinting at the difficulty of adult life. In "The Double," he dives right into the dark sea of adulthood from the opening image. A medium close-up showcases Simon on a train. The light is unstable and his face, which is frozen in place, moves in and out of shadow. He seems lifeless until he is forced into action by a stranger (whose face the viewer cannot see) that tells him to get out of his seat. Simon looks about the train and realizes that it is completely empty save himself and the mystery man. Being the pushover that he is, Simon obliges and walks away. While the man knows his place and demands to have it, Simon does not have one despite the numerous opportunities to pick one. Moreover, he refuses to keep his current place, a motif that will dominate the film. Interestingly, the viewer never gets to see the strangers' face, thus amplifying Simon's worthlessness; it could be anyone telling Simon to back off, and he will oblige willingly. Throughout the train ride, he continues moving in and out of shadow until his point of view shows the viewer the seeming light at the end of the tunnel (or in this case the neighboring train wagon): Hannah. Once he gets to his stop, he is forced to wait around for a bunch of men (whose faces are also partially hidden) to load up a number of different items on the train. When he finally gets off, his briefcase, which has most of his identification papers, gets caught in the door and goes off with the train. So starts this marvelous investigation of the psyche.

The train motif will come back a few more times and showcases scenes in which Simon's identity continues to be stolen from him. The first interactions between Simon and James take place on the train, and the most notable is one in which Simon not expresses his innermost feelings to the double -- feelings that will later be used against him.

The light and dark motif also comes to the fore throughout the film, which plays like a chiaroscuro painting in most scenes. Each time Simon enters his apartment, Ayoade shows him turn on each light in the room as if illuminating the viewer about the character's rather nebulous life. The first time Simon sees James is in a dark street in front of his apartment building, and their climactic confrontation comes during a funeral at midnight. In fact, there is no scene that takes place during the daytime, and most of the locations are interiors without any windows. The only exception is Simon's apartment, which allows him to see the outside world; but even here there is a physical restriction as Simon can only stare at the apartment building across from his. Moreover, Simon's own perspective or interest is limited to staring at Hannah or James' apartments.

The search for identity is obviously the major thematic driver at play as Simon is constantly doing battle with his double to seek out autonomy. James is everything that Simon is not, and despite the fact that they are identical, people do not tend to recognize the resemblance because Simon is seemingly not real to them. At one point a minor character points out to him that he is virtually nonexistent. While Simon is the original, he seems emotionless when compared with his alter ego James (who is essentially his Id), who connects with people on a more immediate and emotional level. James is everything that Simon wishes he could be but is afraid to be. He is afraid to tell Hannah that he loves her. He is afraid to give into his repressed sexual desires for his boss' daughter. He is afraid to cheat the system. He might even be afraid to get rid of his own mother. But upon seeing James take over his life, Simon comes to the realization that only through his own counter-action, not passivity, can he reclaim his identity and life. In fact it is only through these means that he start a the new life that he yearns for. The realization of what he must ultimately do to achieve this goal is a potent twist in the plot that brings the film's psychological themes to the fore.

Jesse Eisenberg is terrific in the two leading roles. His deadpan suits Simon perfectly while he manages to make James a bit more energetic. But even then, there is a timid quality that makes James seem like a non-threat. He never turns James into a fully-fledged villain, which serves two purposes. It not only adds complexity to James by making him seem more likeable, but his temperament seems a bit more like Simon's, making the third act twist all the more believable. Mia Wasikowska's performance is also rather subdued with a greater emphasis on her inner life. Simon and Hannah both talk of themselves as being Pinocchio in order to express how they think they are perceived externally. But they also express having inner emotions that they are been unable to externalize. While Simon ultimately does just that with James, Hannah never finds her outlet. But that does not mean that there are not hints of that repression coming to the fore. In one brilliant scene early in the film, Hannah tells Simon about a man that was stalking her and how she confronted him. This man is essentially another double of Simon (who fits a number of the characteristics she bemoans), and her monologue toward Simon is seemingly directed right at him. Wasikowska is framed in a close-up, and she looks straight at the camera. As she gives her speech, her rage slowly crescendos, and just as it seems about to explode, she finalizes her story and regains control; the repression takes over again and she becomes a silent creature yet again.

Some will certainly complain about the implausibility of the climactic twist, but this film is so highly stylized that it is not likely that anyone could mistake it for realism. Instead the film digs a bit deeper from a psychological standpoint. Speaking in Freudian terms, "The Double" externalizes the subconscious battle between id and superego in attempts at realizing a fully mature ego. 

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