From the opening shot a crisis of identity is occurring. Here sits Simon James, our protagonist in this bureaucratic dystopia, briefly undisturbed with the light hitting him in such a way and in such sharp flashes that it fragments his mug. The deafening sound of the train he is on crushes upon him. As if to add insult to Simon’s injury, a faceless man interrupts the frame and tells him that Simon is sitting in his seat, even though the rest of the compartment is empty. The mirror in front of Simon splits his figure, one dominant and one minute. The scene perfectly sets up things to come with Simon’s identity, as well as indicating how insignificant he is to the world he lives in.
James Simon is the complete opposite. He is physically identical to Simon: same face, same outfit, same haircut, same everything. But he walks with an unidentifiable swagger that Simon could only attempt (and likely fail at). He asserts himself in all situations, is laidback under pressure, and says obscene things with charm. He’s everything Simon wishes he could be. At one point in the film Simon briefly masquerades as James, and wouldn’t you know it everyone treats him with the favor and respect he’s always wanted. Working at the same office, James befriends Simon but then begins to slowly consume every part of his life.
Jesse Eisenberg is commonly cast for his innate timidity and politeness, but he’s never been put to use like this before. As Simon he adopts the framework we’re used to seeing him in, but this time he seems to be in on the joke. As James he is the inverse of how Eisenberg is typically cast, and he pulls it off with great command showing us reaches of character work not many probably realized he had in him. Eisenberg manages the tricky feat of creating two separate but similar identities in a way where the audience is always sure which one is which when they are together on screen. They are two sides of the same coin, two variations on the same tune. They way Eisenberg is able to oscillate between the two is masterful and unlike any of his previous work.
Mia Wasikowska plays Hannah, a copy girl who at first is presented as a fantasy dream girl because that’s how Simon perceives her. Throughout the film, it becomes clear that she is much more than Simon’s perception. Wasikowska applies great charm, wit and desperation in her transition from a dream to a reality. Wallace Shawn plays the micro-manager that is eerily and comically always positive, even when angry. Noah Taylor adds his smug and sleazy tendencies to the film as the closest thing Simon has to a friend at work. Paddy Considine cameos as a TV star of a ridiculous show I would happily watch. Chris O’Dowd also appears in one scene as a hilariously insensitive nurse with Sally Hawkins showing up as a miserably disgruntled secretary.
The sound design is as integral to the picture as anything else. Early in the film Simon is interrupted from getting off the train by two workers loading boxes onto the cart. The sound of them passing and setting down the boxes is that of a squeaky machine. The click-clack of the typewriters merges with the electronic blerps in the office machines to become part of the score. His footsteps aren’t his footsteps, they are manufactured beats as part of the ambience. Throughout the film there is a sonic insinuation of the relationship between man and machine.
The cinematography by Erik Wilson references the fungibility of Simon repeatedly. In one shot, Simon talks to his mother in a phone booth with only a tiny window for us to see him through, complacent to her belittling of him. As this occurs, the camera dollies back from him making him more insignificant in a style reminiscent of the iconic empty hallway shot from Taxi Driver. Adding to Simon’s peril of self are numerous subtle yet effective shots of his face obscured by windows, his figure behind bars, and his body miniscule to his surroundings.
Ayoade has created a memorable dystopia, where every outfit is as bland as the people wearing them and there is a police squad solely dedicated to suicides. The fact we never see daylight in this world adds to the paranoia and bleak hyper-reality of Simon’s existence. Submarine proved Ayoade could deliver solid filmmaking, The Double proves he can deliver masterwork filmmaking.
I realized I forgot to mention something very important: This film is HILARIOUS. I would say it’s laugh-a-minute but that seems to come with the connotation that it’s low-brow, and the comedy in this film is anything but that. The sight-gags are timed with precision and Eisenberg’s reactions of polite frustration to everything and everyone belittling him adds to the dark comedy that Ayoade excels at creating. There is a large sense of glee in Simon’s misfortunes at the hands of bureaucracy. He can’t even get into the mandatory Colonel’s Ball because his card’s not working. He’s worked there for 7 years but can’t get in the building without proper identification. Just as tragic as the film gets, Ayoade and Eisenberg somehow see the comedy within.
I’m sure many will compare this film to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil just as they compared Ayoade’s charming debut Submarine to the work of Wes Anderson. Good for them, but in doing so they aren’t uncovering any of what makes Ayoade’s films work by just comparing them to others. Similar to his two central characters, Ayoade may have similarities, but he is no carbon copy. The source material may have come from Fyodor Dostoevsky but the film comes from Richard Ayoade. Just as Simon screams out at one point in the film, he exists. Ayoade exists, he has his own identity and he is here to stay.