(Staccato Films) As BBC film critic Mark Kermode is fond of pointing out, the first warning sign of cinematic untruth is the phrase “Inspired by true events.” His response is, “As opposed to what? Uninspired by true events? Inspired by false events?” All cinema – even documentary – is essentially untrue, but it aims to touch a deeper Truth by manipulating layers of falsehood. Lee Tamahori's The Devil's Double does just that, showing us something essential about human nature even as it weaves a lurid melodrama around its characters.
At its heart, The Devil's Double is a beautifully photographed nightmare. It's a horror film whose horror is drawn from the wellspring of human brutality. It's all very well to be frightened by supernatural monsters, but human monsters are far more terrifying, because they actually exist.
The monster in this story is Uday Hussein, son of Saddam Hussein. He's played masterfully by Dominic Cooper (Captain America, My Week With Marilyn), who throws himself into the role of a power-mad psychotic with ferocious glee. In a stunning piece of dramatic sorcery, Cooper also plays Latif Yahia, an army lieutenant and old schoolmate of Uday's who looks so much like him that he's drafted to become his double for public appearances. The dual role is so brilliantly executed that it nearly reaches the high-water-mark of Jeremy Irons' portrayal of twin brothers in David Cronenberg's Dead Ringers.
Latif is one of the most tormented characters imaginable, forced to “extinguish” himself and become someone else – a man he utterly despises. Actually, to call Uday a man is being very generous, as the film makes him out to be something closer to a demon in human form. Uday threatens to torture and kill Latif's family if he refuses the job; thus, Latif has no choice but to let his family think he is dead. He becomes Uday's slave, compelled to witness Uday's depraved rape and murder of women, and say nothing.
Even a cursory glance into the real Uday Hussein's life will reveal that he seems to have been every bit the monster shown here. That being said, The Devil's Double is based on a much-disputed memoir by the real Latif Yahia, and historical accuracy is never the film's primary concern. In fact, it owes a lot more to movies like Dead Ringers and Lost Highway than it does to more realistic political thrillers. In Brett Easton Ellis' American Psycho, well-tailored businessmen argue over which of their colleagues they met with and when because they all look the same. There are similar scenes in The Devil's Double: scenes in which someone can't recognize their own father or brother, scenes in which the viewer is purposely confused as to which character they are watching, and scenes in which doubles take orders from other doubles. These devices evoke an existential dread, suggesting that identity is far more fragile than we like to pretend.
The opening scene in which Latif is driven through a heat-drenched Baghdad sets the tone for the rest of the story. The world shimmers with dreamlike unreality, and everything is too perfect. Rivers of light wash through scenes of lush splendor, and Christian Henson's soundtrack is both grand and oppressively claustrophobic. When Latif is forced to watch a video of the horrific torture of political dissidents as part of his own psychological indoctrination, the world feels as if it's coming apart in torrents of madness.
Despite the relatively minimal sexual violence shown on screen, the violence that's implied is disturbing in the extreme, and shouldn't be viewed by anyone who doesn't want to think long and hard about its implications. That is the film's great strength: to unflinchingly show the evil that absolute power creates. As a portrait of a totalitarian state, The Devil's Double is heart-wrenchingly precise. That's the Truth it touches, and it won't leave you unchanged.
In the end, it doesn't matter how much of The Devil's Double actually happened. The events it depicts are things that can and do happen when we allow one group of people too much wealth and control over the lives of others. A nation run by fear – the film points out – is no nation at all, and sometimes our ability to point at someone else and say, “I am not that,” is all that defines us.
For Fans Of: Dead Ringers, Lost Highway, Persona, American Psycho, Mother Night
Why We Like It: gorgeous cinematography, haunting score, an amazing dual performance from Dominic Cooper