The Austin Chronicle

DVDanger: Identity Crisis

By Richard Whittaker, August 30, 2014, 6:00pm, Picture in Picture

"You're in my place." With those opening words, The Double (Magnolia) sums up that moment of pure existential fear that our lives are not our own.

Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg, in all his blanched, nebbishy fury) is a cubicle monkey in a firm of unclear business model. Possibly the unseen management – the mysterious colonel – is selling the vitamin D stripped from the employees' systems by the sickly yellow lighting. He's the kind of guy that, when he denies that he's feeling suicidal, he's listed as a "maybe." But not so James Simon (er, also Jesse Eisenberg), a cocksure interloper who has the high-achieving version of Simon's bottom-of-the-totem-pole life.

We've seen this split personality drama a thousand times before, at its best in Fight Club, and most recently in the Jake Gyllenhaal vs. Jake Gyllenhaal vehicle Enemy. For The Double, director Richard Ayoade is the one orchestrating the doppelganger brain damage. Before his appearances in cult faves like Garth Merengue's Dark Place and The IT Crowd, Ayoade made his reputation doing sketch comedy and double-act material with none other than John Oliver. Their shared sense of awkward Britishness shines through, much as it did in Ayoade's feature directorial debut Submarine.

But here Ayoade's sensibilities are as much Eastern European as insular. Most specifically, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, since this is a modernizing adaptation of his 1846 tale of madness and ode to the despairing horrors of Gogol. There's also more than a dash of Kafka, and the concrete brutalism of a pre-Glasnost party planner. However, don't expect unrelentingly bleak metamisery (I'm reliably informed that ol' Franz Josef is hilarious in the original German).

The first third of the tale concentrates on Simon and his wistful longing from afar over office clerk Hannah. She is the office crush Daisy Buchanan to his crumple-suited Gatsby, and Mia Wasikowska plays her as the anti-manic pixie dream girl. Her casting seems part of a trend: Wasikowska has been making a mark in other 19th century literary adaptations with the title roles in Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, Jane Eyre, and the upcoming Madame Bovary. Here she is the recipient of more unwanted attention than any woman should endure, including Simon's incessant trips to her copy room.

While she is the female lead, head-split narratives like this depend on the tension between the protagonist/antagonist's two halves. Pre-The Social Network Eisenberg was typecast as a dweeb with a trace of a survival instinct, à la Zombieland. Now The Double demands that he splits those two aspects in half between the manipulative James and the passive Simon. The technology is now so advanced that putting the man/men in the same frame at the same time is child's play. So it becomes about performance, as James steals Simon's life – but then, can the left arm steal the right arm's fingers?

In such narratives, there always comes a point when their paths cross, when the alter ego becomes the ego, and Eisenberg's subtlety as a performer becomes his strength. He will never escape his dweebish, gangly frame, but where Simon is a mess of elbows and awkwardness, tumbling over his words, James is a quickfire monster with a lizardlike twitchiness.

Yet his monstrous nature pales in comparison to that of Bruce. A lying, brutal, manipulative piece of shite, not above drugging his friends and sleeping with their wives when it will help him get a little bit ahead. But you don't get to call him Bruce. That's Detective Sergeant Bruce Robertson to you, laddie.

The venal antihero of Irvine Welsh's 1998 novel Filth is depicted in this new cinematic adaptation by James McAvoy (Magnolia Home Entertainment). It's clear that he relishes being the bad guy, and they don't come much worse. With the intention of climbing in rank, he uses every tool at his disposal, from slander to innovative use of the office that would make Simon James blush himself to death, to get what he wants. Unfortunately, what he really wants is his wife Carole (Shauna Macdonald) back. She is shown in dreams and monologues, explaining that she is simply playing a game with him: If he can get the promotion, she will come back. But Bruce is Alex from A Clockwork Orange after he's gone respectable, a solipsistic misanthrope with stains so deep in his soul that his badge is a shield for his degeneracy. And he is so very, very, good at it. He's a modern updating of another great Scottish antihero: the libidinous, licentious Deacon Brodie – respectable businessman, town councilor, philanderer, burglar, and the inspiration for Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde. According to lore, if not law, Brodie ended up at the end of the rope swinging from the gallows he constructed. Bruce's comeuppance is inevitably at the expense of his own dual nature – but of course, much more sordid. Filthy, even.

Writer/director Jon S. Baird's adaptation of Welsh's text is more stylish and less filthy than the original novel (including a pivotal plot rewrite that undermines exactly how far Bruce has fallen, and makes him less of a demon, more of a fallen angel). Its surrealism is garish, compared to Ayoade's sickly palette. However, his Filth is just as much a twisted love letter to Welsh's native Edinburgh as his first (and still greatest) work, Trainspotting.

Make no mistakes: The Athens of the North remains one of the true gems among world capitals, a granite glory on the banks of the Forth Estuary. Yet there's a reason why its natives call it Auld Reekie. As Robertson proclaims with twisted pride, "Scotland. This nation brought the world television, the steam engine, golf, whiskey, penicillin, and of course, the deep-fried Mars bar." Like any city that's been around for a millennium and more, it also has corruption in its veins. There's a Scottish pride to that. So while The Double translates Dostoyevsky's Russian Orthodoxy through a Cold War brutalism, Filth picks up on the way Scots approach their dour Calvinism with a nod, a wink, and a wee dram, just to scare the cold away.

Smartly, while Baird catches the mood of Edinburgh, he tames the rogue brogues and the cultural references that might have thrown off international audiences. Unlike Trainspotting, or the recent Glasgow-set Scarlett Johansson vehicle Under the Skin, he keeps the thickest accents and most obtuse dialects to a minimum (a task assisted by the fact that posh Waverley annunciations tend to be the mildest and most lyrical of all Scottish intonations). His script also gently pushes provincial wrinkles in Robertson's list of sins, like the still-throbbing vein of religious sectarianism, into the subtext.

At least Robertson represents a form of justice, no matter how perverse. In Moebius (Ram Releasing), the world is cruel and harsh, and the rare moments of pleasure come at a twisted price. Continuing in the long and inglorious tradition of South Korean cinema that depicts the country as the worst place on Earth (cf The King of Pigs, Fatal, Confession of Murder, Pieta), Moebius' characters are either passive victims, vengeful maniacs, or amoral thugs.

Writer/director Kim Ki-Duk goes one step further than Baird's softly-softly approach to accents: His film is completely dialogue-free, with any text a clear inset shot for presumptive re-editing for localized versions. Either that, or the unnamed father (Cho Jae-Hyun) and son (Seo Young-Joo) like reading articles about penis transplants in English. It may seem like an awkward topic to bond over, but then, ever since the wife (Eun-woo Lee) castrated her teenage child, it seems inevitable to come up. Pardon the pun.

The act is one of displaced revenge for the father's philandering, and afterward the mother wanders, wild-eyed, into the night. Father and son are left to sew together the fragments of their lives. Kim, being arguably modern cinema's most lyrical chronicler of the transgressive, manages to avoid gruesome details, while still implying the trauma.

Funnily, there's a lot more full-frontal male nudity in Filth than is displayed here, but that doesn't stop the director from pushing the story into some frankly disturbing moments. Many of them come at the expense of Korean culture, and the constant criticism from artists like Kim that its schools are producing a generation of juvenile fascists, and that justice is a nonconcept. No wonder the family scarcely bothers with the legal system when school kids bully the boy, or even about the fact that the mutilating matriarch just seems to have wandered off.

But that's common fare in many contemporary Korean movies. The point at which Kim pushes boundaries comes in the relationship between father, son, and sexuality. Just as a parent would help a crippled child with crutches, here the task is more taboo, and as the pair take deeper and stranger measures to find some solution to the boy's truncated puberty, their relationship becomes more strained. It quickly becomes one of the most incisive and tender commentaries on paraphilia and the rarely discussed issue of male genital mutilation. And then the mother returns, and the narrative takes a stomach-churning left turn.

This is pure arthouse horror, as the family dynamic becomes a psychosexual nightmare, one that some may find squirm-inducing, and others borderline ridiculous. While there are odd moments of blood, its reinterpretation of the term little death – as mutilation turns to self-mutilation, and self-sacrifice become becomes a demand for penance – is both haunting and disturbing.

The Double and Filth are available now on DVD and Blu-ray. Moebius is available now on VOD.

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