“You’re a good man in a bad job,” says an Iraqi army soldier named Latif Yahia (Dominic Cooper), a prophetic statement aimed at Munem (Mem Ferda), the elderly security officer in charge of protecting and wrangling royal psychopath Uday Hussein (also played by Cooper). Early in Lee Tamahori’s cartoonish and sensationalist biopic The Devil’s Double, it becomes bluntly clear Latif falls into this category as well. A common man forced to become Uday’s body double because of a strikingly similar physical resemblance, Latif is given a front-row seat to his employer’s brash acts of sadism and torture. Uday’s outlandish murderous spectacles, which grow more intense and brazen as the film progresses, become a streamlined version of his own father Saddam’s (Philip Quast) stranglehold of fear over the people of Iraq.
The Devil’s Double begins during the height of the Iran/Iraq war with a procession of archival footage documenting various battles. Plucked from his role as a combat soldier by Oday and his henchmen after a particularly devastating losing skirmish, Latif enters a landscape of opulence defined by glistening surfaces. Bikini-clad women, expensive cars, and posh clothes are just a few of Oday’s favorite things, and this mad hatter pushes his wealth down Latif’s throat. Their relationship, and in turn Cooper’s titanic dual performance, becomes a war between caricature and normalcy, chaos and order.
The film’s first act is wholly concerned with the juxtaposition of physical similarities and ideological opposites, and Tamahori spends entire sequences upending the balance between the two. When Uday pushes against Latif as they both look into a gigantic wall mirror, he smugly says, “Two peas in a pod.” Latif’s obvious discomfort only excites Oday further, establishing their entire relationship in one small moment. The tension between the two is often one-sided, with Oday’s theatrics playing out in wild set pieces of sexual aggression, leaving Latif impotent to watch from a close proximity.
Aside from the central conflict between Latif and Oday, Tamahori structures the film around perfect pairings of objects and bodies. Each colorfully saturated frame has a striking balance, whether it’s two shiny Mercedes Benz’s driving down a desert road, thuggish bodyguards lined up in perfectly calibrated formation, or scores of attractive women posing in unison by a sun-drenched poolside. This motif comes to its apex when Latif walks by a tennis court and sees two of Saddam’s body doubles playing tennis against each other. When both turn to look at Latif passing by, The Devil’s Double momentarily transcends its overt stylistics and allows the imagery to speak for itself.
Like most films that try and sustain a breakneck pacing and tone, The Devil’s Double eventually grows tiresome. After Uday turns one of his father’s closest friends into a stuck pig on top of a dinner table, the extreme bursts of violence start to overwhelm the interesting visual dynamics on display. Even more problematic, Tamahori can’t reconcile the familiar gangster-film conventions at work, and eventually Uday becomes just another psychotic, drug-addicted menace in a long line of similar archetypes. His role as a fanatical political figure is a mere afterthought.
The Devil’s Double eventually splinters at the seams during a final dash to the finish line. There’s a one-note love affair between Latif and Oday’s favorite girl, Sarrab (Ludvine Sagnier), that feels ripped directly from De Palma’s Scarface, holding even less weight than the Pacino/Pfeiffer sordid affair. The once-contained narrative turns into a mess of plot contrivances, sending Latif and Sarrab abroad in a stunningly misguided escape subplot that goes absolutely nowhere. Eventually, The Devil’s Double catches up with the history books, and its “true” ending is about as rushed as any in recent memory. At this point, all of the previous tension between Latif and Oday evaporates into the desert air.
Despite falling deathly flat, The Devil’s Double remains a potent artifact of indulgence and madness crashing up against an unseen reality. The delusions on display, both by the characters and the filmmakers themselves, express a specific form of self-satisfaction that seeps into every corner of the frame. Finally, we are left with the point of view of everyday Iraqis. When these innocent bystanders aren’t being tortured (one sequence at a wedding is especially nasty), they mostly watch the heightened events unfold from a distance, helpess and impotent to Uday’s reign of terror. Still, their martyrdom feels just as calculated as Uday’s evil and Latif’s honor, just another simplistic piece of an overstuffed lesson on historical revisionism.