When looking at the way Richard Ayoade, a man still more famous these days for his comedic acting credentials than his filmmaking, speaks of his new film two things are apparent: he is an incredible intelligent and witty individual, but he also carries an air of broody, awkward insecurity. This clash of jovial and dark natures is what is on show in The Double and is simultaneously the source of its strengths and weaknesses.
This, the second feature from Ayoade following the delightfully bizarre and touching indie flick Submarine, sees the director going further down the rabbit-hole of surreal storytelling. Loosely adapted from a Dostoevsky short story, the film follows a reclusive, down on his luck employee of a spookily non-specific, Brazil-esque data analysis company named Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg) who drifts through life like a ghost: resented by his dying mother, invisible to the girl he loves (Mia Wasikowska) and even to his co-workers despite having been there for 7 years. His situation reaches a horrific low when James Simon (also Eisenberg), his doppelganger in appearance yet polar opposite in demeanour, arrives at the company and proceeds to all but erase Simon’s life completely.
It is bizarre to observe that in early press releases of this film that it is billed as a first and foremost a comedy. There are undoubtedly great comic elements to it, either born out of witty writing, some choice cameos or absurdist visions (watch out for a priest attacking Eisenberg with a shovel) and these elements feel very in keeping with Ayoade’s, for want of a better word, off-beat style of writing and directing. Yet there is much more in this film that sought, often successfully, to be a dark Hitchcockian thriller and at times even a full on horror piece. The mind of Simon James is one of constant unease and this is reflected in the his surroundings: a world in perpetual night, smokey streets cloaked in shadows, strange and inexplicable bursts of light and dank, claustrophobic interiors. The overtly noir visual style is combined with a gloriously inventive soundtrack, where an individual element such as the sound of footsteps will merge into the score and transcend the action we are seeing, to create what is ultimately a highly surreal and bleak world, seemingly removed from time or real location, that is wonderfully and carefully constructed to reflect a dark story that builds to rather violent conclusions.
The tension between the bleak and the comedic elements arise as the story progresses in this way. While the comedy helps to engage sympathy with Eisenberg Mk.1’s sense of helplessness and later juxtapose the two Eisenberg characters as Mk.2 starts to steal Mk.1’s life, it effectively creates a barrier in the telling of the story as it moves towards the final act. As a result the film feels like it is dealing with too many elements and therefore restraining itself, as such the climactic pay off feels much less satisfying than the build up promises.
Yet this is not to say that this a work to be sidelined. This is a bold, creative and surreal vision of a complex story that takes time to establish its tone and characters and proves a fascinating watch but is not quite disciplined enough to deliver its full potential.
The Double (2013), directed by Richard Ayoade, is released in the UK by StudioCanal, Certificate 15.