Mark Reviews Movies

The Devil's Double


2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Lee Tamahori

Cast: Dominic Cooper, Ludivine Sagnier, Raad Rawi, Philip Quast, Mimoun Oaissa, Dar Salim, Khalid Laith, Pano Masti, Mem Ferda, Nasser Memarzia

MPAA Rating: R (for strong brutal bloody violence and torture, sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and pervasive language)

Running Time: 1:48

Release Date: 7/29/11 (limited); 8/5/11 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | August 4, 2011

The Devil's Double offers no entryway into its story. The movie presents two possibilities in the form of a duo of widely distinct characters: One is a blank slate; the other is a disturbed and murderous psychopath. The further problem with this choice is that the psychopath is, unfortunately, far more interesting on a first-impression basis.

Despite the psychological gulf between the two characters, there's little conflict arising from their relationship. Much of this is circumstantial, because, after all, when a crazy man, whose reputation for torture and slaughter precedes him, threatens to kill you and your family unless you do something for him, odds are, you'll end up in his employ. This is the predicament for Latif Yahia (Dominic Cooper), who is pulled from service fighting during the Iran-Iraq War to serve his country in the palace of Saddam Hussein as the fiday, or double, of Hussein's son Uday (also Cooper).

Latif starts antagonistic and skeptical of Uday (and rightly so) and remains so until the end, leaving little mobility in his character arc. Once he moves past his initial disgust with the prospect and protest of the offer, which lands him in a solitary cell, he is more than able but less than willing to participate in the deceit to protect a madman. He has no choice and few options.

Uday, obviously, has an even more static characterization. A sadist who records torture sessions and re-watches them (and makes Latif view them to get an idea of his work), a hedonist who lives in luxury away from battle while the people of his country die for him and his family, and a rapist who plucks schoolgirls off the street only to have his henchmen dump their bodies in the wilderness when he's finished, Uday is nothing more or less than evil incarnate—a man turned monster for the fun of it. He comes across as a sniveling weasel, desperately seeking the approval of a father (Philip Quast) who, at one point, threatens to cut off his son's genitals until the doctor warns that it would more than likely kill him. "I should have gelded him at birth," the senior homicidal madman responds.

While the dynamic between Latif and Uday as imagined in Michael Thomas' screenplay (based on the real Yahia's book) makes for stilted drama, it does provide Cooper with the difficult task of dual performances, further complicated by the notion of one character occasionally playing the part of the other. It's truly a remarkable performance, particularly in those moments in which Latif is impersonating Uday. With the subtlest variation in vocal inflection, the way his gap-toothed smile is slightly phony, and the hint of a change in his air of confidence, Cooper makes a distinct differentiation between Uday and when Latif is putting on a charade, attempting to rally Iraqi soldiers after the invasion of Kuwait.

As detailed as Cooper's performances are, the story itself is vague. Thomas' script is light on historical and political context, and director Lee Tamahori uses archival footage of the Iran-Iraq War and Operation Desert Storm to fill in the gaps. The bigger picture is essentially ignored for episodes displaying the extremes of Uday's lifestyle and actions.

We see him driving down the street, harassing young girls who catch his eye before he sics his goons on them. He snorts cocaine off a knife and later uses a larger one to eviscerate one of his father's men who has the gall to mock him. In a particularly vicious scenario, he attends a wedding reception and plucks the bride from her husband to his room upstairs.

What these excursions into cruelty mean in terms of Thomas and Tamahori's exploration of them is left unclear. As they mount, it seems they only provide reason after reason for Latif to reach a breaking point when he can no longer handle being witness to and indirect participant in Uday's madhouse. He's given respite and a visit to the family that believes he died in battle after deciding that death is preferable to his job. His father (Nasser Memarzia) insists he carry on under the rationale that "One day, we will have justice," and there's also the problem of Sarrab (Ludivine Sagnier), the favorite of the many women Uday keeps nearby. Something forbidden starts between Latif and Sarrab, which might be additional motivation beyond the threat to his family to stay.

It's all quite hazy, so it only seems appropriate that The Devil's Double ends with a series of shootouts, meant to wrap a nice, tidy bow on the debauchery. The movie's main takeaways are that Uday Hussein did horrible, terrible, and unspeakable things in life and that his death did not come soon enough. Why we recall these facts is uncertain.

Copyright © 2011 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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