When we were children our parents told us there’s no such thing as monsters. In the sense that there’s no mythical furry, fang-toothed, sharp-clawed beast under the bed or in the closet this is true, but this world is filled with monsters. Evil exists. There are people on this planet who live without moral compass or boundaries, men who feed on hate and terror. For years Uday Hussein, son of dictator Saddamn Hussein, wreaked his own personal brand of horror on the people of Iraq and now director Lee Tamahori has brought that malevolence to a personal level with The Devil’s Double.
Featuring a stunning dual performance by star Dominic Cooper, the film is a brutal and often hard to watch look at what happens when unfettered power is given to an absolute psychopath. Though it drags in the third act and has a fairly predictable plot structure (and I don’t just mean because it’s based on a true story), Devil’s Double is gripping when it needs to be, enough that it’s held together by an intense dynamic between two main characters.
Set in 1987, Iraqi army lieutenant Latif Yahia (Cooper) is sent from the battlefield to Saddam Hussein's palace where a former classmate, Uday Hussein (also Cooper), asks that Latif become his “fiday,” or body double. Told that his family would be killed if he refuses, Latif agrees, but soon becomes witness to Uday’s gruesome nature. The Black Prince’s daily life is filled with drugs, rape, torture and murder. Unable to take any more, he tries to escape, but it comes at an incredible cost.
The Devil’s Double is driven almost entirely by Dominic Cooper’s memorable turn as both Latif and Uday. Though there are differences between the two that help viewers tell them apart – they have different voices and teeth – it ends up not mattering, as Cooper communicates which person he is via body language alone. The two men can be in the same room, wearing the same clothes, standing perfectly still and yet you’ll have no trouble picking out which one is which. Though each character is different and complex, Cooper completely embodies each one he seamlessly interacts with himself. You’ll never consciously feels like you’re watching Dominic Cooper play two roles, which is everything you can ask for in a film made like this one.
While both hero and antagonist are stunning in the depth of their portrayal, the film suffers in story and structure. Though The Devil’s Double contains powerful scenes, they serve to construct characters rather than story, which is a format almost too simple to sustain itself. It doesn’t take much more than Uday slicing open a man’s stomach with a machete to understand why Latif would want to escape, yet a great deal of the film is dedicated to showing the prince’s crimes against humanity as a way to increase the script’s intensity level. While effective, it doesn’t help a lagging plot. Even the romantic interest, played by Ludivine Sagnier, feels more like an excuse to have Latif interact with another character, than part of the story as a whole.
Also questionable is the film’s crisp, clean cinematography. On one level it suits the gilded cage motif – a man given everything he could want but also hopelessly trapped – but also runs in contrast to the film’s tone, which because of the content, is black as night. It doesn’t do the movie any favors and, in a way, becomes a distraction. While I wouldn’t advocate a “grindhouse” style for the film, something in between would be apropos and might have made already extreme scenes all the more so.
The Devil’s Double is kept afloat by Dominic Cooper’s fascinating performance. Missing this would mean missing one of the most brilliant acting displays of the year and while the film feels deeply flawed, Cooper is worth the price of admission.