People are committing suicide at an alarming rate in the shadowy alternate universe of The Double. It's such a common occurrence that police officers don't have the time (or interest) to investigate specific motives in each case. Considering the mind-numbing look and feel of this retro-1950s dystopia, self-destruction seems like a logical endgame.
Lowly data processor Simon (Jesse Eisenberg) has flirted with the idea thanks to a never-ending parade of abuse felt at the hands of his co-workers and family members. He's meek, cowardly and far too sensitive, the perfect victim in a claustrophobic world fueled by emotional repression and social alienation.
Director Richard Ayoade spends much of the film's first half establishing the gravity of Simon's nightmarish environment. The office elevator refuses to budge, the lobby guard provides daily harassment and the main office is afflicted with a constant interior buzzing sound that would drive a lumberjack insane. The entire world appears to revolt the second Simon walks into a room, performing a kind of silent bullying that's horrific in its quiet ruthlessness. But he takes it, day after day.
"It's terrible to be alone too much," Simon confesses to a beautiful co-worker named Hannah (Mia Wasikowska) after watching a stranger jump to his death. But in The Double, one must be careful what they wish for. A few scenes later, Simon's suave doppelganger walks in for his first day of work at the same office, a Freudian wake-up call that expands the scope of his daily punishment. Smooth, confident and corrupt, James (Eisenberg) dominates the office in a matter of days, relegating Simon to non-person status by snuggling up to their dimwit boss (Wallace Shawn) and making lustful eyes at Hannah.
Debauchery ensues as Simon attempts to beat James at his own game, failing miserably to regain some semblance of confidence. While the plot twists and turns thanks to dream logic, The Double hinges on Eisenberg's strong dual performance to inhabit polar-opposite characters, sometimes in the same frame. There might not be another young actor who can go from being so convincingly nebbish to illuminatingly decrepit in an instant.
But it's Ayoade's style that gives The Double a singular identity. Visually, we get a blend of noir lighting (shadows, bars, staircases) and intrusive camera work (zooms, close-ups), jarring aesthetics that help pin Simon down like a mounted butterfly on display. Character interactions are filmed with deadpan restraint, highlighting the absurdity defining every ass-backwards conversation. It's as if Aki Kaurismäki's haloed compositions were crossbred with Guy Maddin's frantic silent-cinema montages, creating a shifting physical world to match Simon's psychological confusion.
Thematically, the film poses an interesting central question: What kind of society mistakes a man's vile tendencies for his virtuous ones? We see a lot of our current selves in The Double's blurred answer. Self-indulgence and instant gratification are admissible culprits in the growing isolation people feel nowadays, and just because Simon lives in a world far removed from reality doesn't make it feel any less like the 21st century.
In The Double—which opens Friday, May 16, at the Ken Cinema— narrative clarity is often lost to the glory of happenstance and intrigue, just as it is in this year's other split-personality film, The Enemy. If Simon and James are the same person (most would make this claim), Ayoade doesn't make this argument his first priority.
Instead, he's far more interested in looking at the strange process of transition, how someone moves from a life of fear toward self-awareness, shaking off the poor posture and standing upright, looking someone in the eye and telling them the bitter truth. The Double suggests that to do so, we must make peace with our root evils, no matter how unwieldy the results.