Jesse Eisenberg and Mia Wasikowska in "The Double," a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures. Photo credit: Dean Rodgers.

Jesse Eisenberg and Mia Wasikowska in “The Double,” a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures. Photo Credit: Dean Rodgers.

Watching Richard Ayoade’s The Double, I couldn’t help but think of the climactic hotel room reveal in David Fincher’s wholly cerebral Fight Club, when the narrator, incarnated by Edward Norton, realizes Brad Pitt’s Tyler Durden to be nothing more than his schizophrenia-induced alter ego. Pitt lays it out simply: “All the ways you wish you could be, that’s me. I look like you want to look. I fuck like you want to fuck. I am smart, capable, and most importantly, I am free in all the ways that you are not.” The familiar theme of character destruction induced by polar opposites takes center stage in Ayoade’s second directorial turn, but the British filmmaker forges something altogether bizarre and unfamiliar through the fact that the protagonist and antagonist in this dark comedy are physical replicas of each other. In other words, they’re twins without the familial ties.

Ayoade and Avi Korine — who partnered on the script for the coming-of-age tale Submarine (2010), Ayoade’s first film — adapted the screenplay for The Double from Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novella of the same name, substituting the Russian literary maverick’s main character, Yakov Petrovich Golyadkin, with the Americanized Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg). Simon is a meek, timid fellow, possessing the social grace of a practiced shut-in and so emotionally fragile you might just be able to knock him down with an askance gaze. His long hours as a clerk in a Big Brother-esque government institution go unnoticed and his clueless cog of a boss, Mr. Papadopoulos (Wallace Shawn), consistently belittles his work. Simon longs for the copy-room blonde, Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), but shies away from any contact other than distanced observation (some might call it stalking). Of course, it doesn’t help that he couldn’t charm a bumblebee even if he was covered in Grade-A honey. Basically, Simon’s spirit is only barely intact by the time his doppelganger, James Simon, turns up to work one day.

James reaffirms the notion of the doppelganger as a mythological bad omen; a charming, confident, womanizing and manipulating individual, he certainly portends nothing but misery for Simon, who’s overshadowed and consumed by his analogue bit by bit throughout the latter half of the 93-minute-long mindfuck. Eisenberg gives a brilliant dual performance as the under-the-radar and on-everyone’s-radar personas, and plays each so convincingly that it’s almost impossible not to dwell on the unnerving thought of one’s own malicious double waiting to make life a living hell. The film’s logic is clear: Whatever is the worst possible thing that can befall Simon from scene to scene indeed comes to pass, and his life as well as his sanity quickly spiral out of control.

In and of itself, the film’s story, which methodically piles on gut-busting tension, is enough to induce a chill among those with even the most stalwart of dispositions. Ayoade, though, complements it to the max, harnessing his stylistic finesse to immerse us in the peculiar world he develops. He and cinematographer Erik Wilson (also a Submarine collaborator) frame the shots tightly for a stifling, cramped effect, and the absence of any wide shots serves as a disorienting mechanism. (The dialogue, which comes in fast-paced spurts juxtaposed by cavernous periods of silence, also throws us off kilter.) Although, even if there was any sort of slackening in the framing, it wouldn’t do much good to help viewers gauge the characters’ surroundings. The lack of identifiable landmarks or consistent cultural references strips us of recognizable environs; sci-fi TV shows scream Blade Runner futurism, countered by retro touches like austere architecture that recalls Soviet-era drab and outdated technology that places us somewhere at the beginning of computer lineage. Deep shadows and sickly green lighting pervade almost every surface, haunting the screen like a malevolent specter. The sound mixing, though, might pull us deeper down the rabbit hole than any of the flick’s other sensory elements — deep, reverberating strings and augmented quotidian sounds such as footsteps offer up a visceral, dramatic buildup. (Ayoade says the sound, built on a variety of repeated and layered loops, was completed over a period of about five months and took longer to finish than the filming.)

Ayoade’s is an interesting take on reality, mainly because he’s clearly not concerned with any cookie-cutter representation of it. The surreal atmosphere, character interplays that are humorous in their abnormality, and, of course, the notion of a double randomly interjecting into and usurping one’s life, draw attention to the artifice of the movie and its constructed universe. However, this is merely a shell for what is, at the film’s heart, a truly human story of the evolving relationship between a practically invisible man and his seemingly unattainable love interest, and the lengths he’s willing to go to in order to, perhaps for the first time in his life, stick up for what he wants — even if he has to fight his physical self to attain it.

Rating: 3 out of 4 stars

“The Double” opened on May 9 in New York City and Los Angeles and is available on VOD, including Amazon, VUDU, YouTube and iTunes. This film is rated R.

Video Courtesy of MOVIECLIPS Trailers.

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