The Devil’s Double is the disturbing and mostly true tale of Latif Yahia, a well to-do Iraqi man who is forced to become the body double of Uday Hussein, the sadistic elder son of dictator Saddam Hussein. Dominic Cooper (An Education, Captain America), in what is sure to be a star turn, impressively fills both roles. Cooper’s performance absolutely makes this movie, but despite a strong first half, it is director Lee Tamahori (The Edge, Die Another Day) who ultimately drops the ball. The result is a very uneven film, one that goes from an interesting character study of two wildly different men to an unnecessary action film by the third act.
But let’s talk about the film’s lead(s). Cooper is insanity and excess personified as the psychotic Uday, while channeling a kind of quiet sadness as the principled body double Latif. Uday’s paranoid narcissism leads him to become obsessed with his doppelganger, and Cooper plays both sides of this twisted relationship to a tee. It must be acknowledged that his performances were aided by some very strong visual effects work. The Social Network played a similar trick for a handful of scenes featuring the Winkelvoss twins, but here Cooper plays most of the film against himself. It’s an impressive feat for anyone, and even more impressive when you consider how compelling each individual performance is on its own. Full credit to Cooper and to the effects team.
The film itself is a bit of a disappointment. The wild shift in tone between the first and second half makes The Devil’s Double feel like two separate films. The first two thirds of the film focus on Latif’s transformation from humble army officer to indentured double of Saddam’s son. Latif must learn to emulate the spoiled (and likely insane) Uday perfectly if he is to double for him. With the help of some plastic surgery and research Latif becomes Uday, doubling for him during public appearances, state functions and numerous assassination attempts.
This section of the film spans from the mid-eighties during the Iran-Iraq War to the waning days of the first Gulf War, with each temporal chunk of narrative book-ended by actual footage from the conflicts. Through the eyes of Latif we witness Uday’s unbridled depravity over the years. It’s a world of privilege and excess, of fast cars, drugs and loose women – all paid for by the blood of Iraqi citizens. Kidnapping, rape, torture and murder were standard tools of Saddam’s regime, but Uday’s violent outbursts are revealed to be pointlessly cruel and mostly recreational. With each chapter of the film Tamahori methodically ramps up the shock factor, climaxing with Uday’s public disemboweling and murder of one of his father’s confidants. This unbelievably violent act would be almost comedic if not for the fact that it actually occurred in real life.
It’s here that the film takes a turn for the worse. Given the subject matter of The Devil’s Double, it’s reasonable for viewers to expect a violent resolution to the film. However the realistic tone that Tamahori goes so far to establish in the preceding acts is immediately squandered by the finale – all in the name of action. The director hammers home the gravity of Latif’s situation again and again throughout the film, but when it comes time for the double to make his escape the movie descends into a series of cartoonish gunfights, car chases and unnecessary twists. This has turned into a pattern of sorts for Tamahori, having serially failed to “bring it home” with his finales in previous films. The Edge and Die Another Day suffered similarly muddled conclusions.
The Devil’s Double paints a terrifying portrait of life in Iraq during Saddam Hussein’s rule. It’s offers bloody education in the suffering endured by her people for more than thirty years, and a look at the true madness at the heart of the regime. The film suffers from an episodic construction and weak conclusion, but Dominic Cooper is tremendous in the dual roles of Latif and Uday. His performance(s) make the The Devil’s Double worth seeing.