If Richard Ayoade’s previous film, the wonderful Submarine, was a hand-woven fable about becoming a man and finding love, his follow-up, The Double, is a Bakelite dystopia about unrequited adulthood.
Jesse Eisenberg stars in this darkly fantastical drama, based on the story of the same name by Fyodor Dostoevsky yet shot through with an aesthetic that’s entirely its own. From the first shot to the last, The Double is visually and aurally oppressive, with benighted visuals akin to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and the Coen brothers’ Barton Fink, and a sonic backwash that recalls David Lynch’s Eraserhead.
Eisenberg plays Simon, a shy, awkward young man who works for an astonishingly austere company that specialises in – well, it’s difficult to tell what it specialises in. Employees are packed neatly into cubicles, grainy VHS ads for the firm confidently state that “People are the ultimate resource”, while the whole operation is overseen by a Big Brother-like boss who’s glimpsed almost exclusively in pictures – the eminent Edward Fox providing his distinctive visage.
Simon diligently goes about his desk job, yet struggles to make an impression in this ominously retro environment, where everything seems to come from a science fiction vision of the future circa 1979. The jobsworth security guard refuses to recognise him, even though he’s worked there for seven years, and even mechanical things like lifts stubbornly refuse to operate when he’s within their locus. Simon admires a pretty colleague, Hannah (Mia Wasikowska) literally from afar – he can see her apartment through a telescope, since she also happens to live in the building opposite his own – but he can barely pluck up the courage to say more than a couple of words to her.
Then, one day, a new employee arrives: James, who looks exactly like Simon, and is also played by Jesse Eisenberg. But where Simon is nervous and seems to be trying to shrink back inside his outsized grey suit whenever he’s in company, this newcomer is garrulous, confident and somehow able to make everyone like him within seconds. Worse still, his charisma immediately captures Hannah’s attention.
Full of humour yet oddly frightening at the same time, The Double is a kind of psychological nightmare. Simon’s workplace might be a hellhole, with its absurdly rigid rules, horrid lighting and carnival of cliquey workers, but Simon isn’t trapped by his job so much as his own psyche. There is literally no difference between Simon and his double – it’s only their response to the world that distinguishes them. Yet because his double is relaxed in company, cheerful and ready with a joke or a sly compliment, he immediately becomes a hit with bosses and co-workers alike – even though he hasn’t the first clue what his job entails.
Ayoade’s film is a magnificent observation of what it means to feel out of step with the world, whether you’re a teenager or an adult. It captures the frustration of being trapped in a mind that simply won’t function as it should in polite company, that desperately wants to be liked and accepted, but simply doesn’t give out the right responses.
In his dual role, Eisenberg is superb. So much of his performance’s strength comes from the subtle modulations of his body language; Simon is hunched and stiff, as though he’s constantly recoiling from something. James, meanwhile, is upright and almost aggressively proud, his grand statements and snappy responses the complete opposite to Simon’s reticent stammerings.
Mia Wasikowska’s similarly effective, bringing the same ethereal sense of calm and coiled intelligence that she displayed in Park Chan-wook’s Stoker. Then again, everyone in The Double is superb; look out for cameos from comedian Tim Key (his maudlin voice perfect for the comically funereal tone of the movie), Chris O’Dowd, and Submarine’s Yasmin Paige, Noah Taylor and Paddy Considine – the latter appearing on a CRT television in a pricelessly kitsch pastiche of a typical 80s sci-fi adventure show.
“A person should amount to something and not float around the Earth like a ghost,” runs a vital, desperately poignant line from the film. As a surreal portrait of alienation, The Double is almost flawless. Superbly shot and powerfully acted, it’s a Fight Club for the socially awkward. Only two films into his career, Aoyade has established himself as a unique talent in British filmmaking.
The Double is out in UK cinemas on the 4th April.
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