91 minutes/Opens tomorrow/ **
The story: Crumpled history teacher Adam Bell (Jake Gyllenhaal) rents a video and discovers a bit part actor who looks exactly like him. He becomes obsessed with the man and tracks him down, much to the consternation of girlfriend Mary (Melanie Laurent). Adam convinces his lookalike, Anthony St Clair, to meet him and they discover that while they are physically identical, their personalities are polar opposites.
Director Denis Villeneuve comes to this project with a trailer full of critical love for his child abduction thriller Prisoners (2013) and Oscar-nominated meditation on religious conflict Incendies (2010). He has earned well justified praise for muscular, suspense-driven works that explore the deep questions of human behaviour.
This time, he turns his attention to a screenplay adapted from the 2002 novel The Double by Portuguese writer Jose Saramago, a book that asks the question "Are we who we think we are?", with the use of a doppelganger as the main plot device.
Villeneuve and team translate the book's abstractions into sinister visual motifs that linger in the mind.
Spiders appear in odd places in the story, but Villeneuve is too smart to spell out what they mean. There is a restless forward motion at work. Bell (Gyllenhaal, playing the twin roles with a remarkably light touch) is on a quest to track down his lookalike, while his physical twin is also engaged in some unspecified bit of business involving high-end orgies.
Psychological struggles are illustrated with fantastical dream sequences that are never mentioned in the light of day.
While the film is finely crafted and boasts excellent performances from female leads Laurent and Sarah Gadon (playing St Clair's pregnant wife Helen), everything is too restrained and tasteful and, in particular, too reliant on the suspense trope of the chase.
The old psychological thriller notion of our darkest fears being our own selves pops up coyly, almost reluctantly.
Themes of identity and the Other have been better dealt with when filtered through the lens of genre cinema, including black comedy in Fight Club (1999) and fanciful 1970s Italian-style horror in Black Swan (2010). Villeneueve's raw, head-on approach fares badly in comparison.
This article was published on April 9 in The Straits Times.
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