By Dave Wilson | August 12, 2011
Writers: Michael Thomas (screenplay), Latif Yahia (novel)
Starring: Dominic Cooper, Ludivine Sagnier, Raad Rawi, Mem Ferda, Dar Salim
Lee Tamahori’s new film, The Devil’s Double, based on the 1997 memoir, I Was Saddam’s Son, tells the story of the unfortunate Iraqi soldier Latif Yahia who bears so strong a resemblance to Saddam Hussein’s elder son Uday that he is forced by Hussein’s inner circle to serve as a body double for this corrupt, sociopathic live wire who represents all of the excess and paranoia of Hussein’s regime. Unfortunately, what might have been a compelling drama steeped in recent history and politics is instead little more than a second-rate genre film that often looks and feels like a made for TV movie.
Dominic Cooper (Captain America, An Education) plays both the reluctant Latif and the leering, violent-tempered Uday Hussein, which seems a sensible enough casting decision. There is a long tradition of models for this kind of set-up, which includes everything from those identical cousins in The Patty Duke Show to Nicolas Cage’s dual performance as the Kaufman brothers in 2002’s Adaptation. Unfortunately, Dominic Cooper makes a profound miscalculation in his portrayal of Uday, and if you’re anything like me, it will take you the better part of the film’s 108 minutes to get beyond the twisted, bucktoothed grin and funny voice. A serious film about a dangerous man should not allow its antagonist to spend scene after scene mugging for the camera and speaking in a voice that is two shades shy of Miss Piggy. Or is it Grover?
Whether or not history’s Uday Hussein was actually a warbling buffoon, grinning, firing pistols, throwing hysterical tantrums on a dime, this adaptation never lets you forget that this is an actor, Dominic Cooper, making a series of eccentric choices. Are there ways to suggest the psychotic nature, the mood swings, and the infantile rage that might not be as literal or dependent upon caricature? The first example that comes to my mind is Joe Pesci’s turn as Tommy in Scorsese’s mob classic, Goodfellas. Forget about his small stature and unmistakable voice, so distinctly his own. Pesci is truly terrifying when Ray Liotta makes the mistake of calling him funny. Why does this performance work? Perhaps because it arises from Pesci himself, from his personality, mannerisms, and likely some of his own insecurities. There is never a sense, as there is in The Devil’s Double, that the actor is playing a part.
In this case, we’re left with the irony that the performance which feels most “put on” is that of the madman, Uday Hussein, the very model that our protagonist must strive to emulate. How can we feel the suspense that we are meant to feel—that of Latif trying to mimic Uday convincingly enough to preserve his life—when we’re more concerned with Dominic Cooper’s ability to pull off this eccentric caricature? I wasn’t up to it, I have to say, and I was never quite able to stop cringing.
The Devil’s Double falls into that familiar trap that ensnares so many films that are based on real-life stories. The central figure, the man whose story we see depicted, becomes little more than a passive witness to the catalog of atrocities at the center of the film. The film very quickly sets up the fact that our hero Latif has no choice but to fall into line, sacrificing his own identity and becoming both companion and double to Uday Hussein. Latif is taken away and tortured until he submits, he is shown that his beloved family, kept under watch, will be murdered in cold blood if he resists.
So of course he gives in. The barbers and plastic surgeons and orthodontists have at him and Latif learns to walk and talk and carouse like Uday. Beyond this, Uday accepts him almost immediately as a sort of brother and unwilling accomplice, compelling him to stand by his side and accompany him on his depraved wanderings as he hops from club to club, picking up women, snorting coke, falling into violent rages, and even—this is very hard to watch—picking up schoolgirls and casting their bodies into ditches when he has finished with them. We get the sense that Uday feeds on Latif’s outrage, that he draws energy from his thinly veiled contempt, that he needs Latif to be his silent witness even more than he needs him to serve as his double.
What all of this amounts to is that despite the raw, violent energy at its core, the film commits the fatal narrative sin of saddling us with a protagonist who is powerless to act. Instead of giving us a hero whose will drives the narrative, we get a curiously silent, disapproving witness who does little more than register this endless stream of increasingly brutal atrocities. A horrifying true-life story, perhaps—but as a drama and a thriller, the film spins on and on like a dervish, with little other purpose than to satisfy our baser curiosities. Who will Uday disembowel next? What will he do to this schoolgirl when she resists him? In the end, you may be left wondering precisely what director Tamahori’s intentions are. Should we share in Latif’s outrage, or read all of this as some sort of exploitation film?
It might have been possible for Tamahori and screenwriter Michael Thomas to take us more deeply into Latif’s heart and mind to suggest the turmoil below the surface. But the fact that our source material is a memoir by a passive participant really limits our options. There are also attempts to provide Latif with a confidant and love interest by throwing him together with Sarrab (Ludivine Sagnier), Uday’s most frequent bed companion. Despite some efforts to provide Sarab with a compelling history of her own, she ends up coming across as little more than a B-movie femme fatale.
In scene after scene, Tamahori makes it plain that his real concern is not to explore these hearts of darkness but to craft a violent thriller. The resulting thriller feels rather empty and pointless, and steeped as it is in this late twentieth century Iraqi scene of discotheques, brothels, coke binges, and gold chains, it all feels like some throwback to a particular kind of late night eighties Cinemax film, with a few parts Miami Vice thrown in for kicks.