Reality is what you say it is when you're the dictator tyrant who runs a country like Saddam Hussein's Iraq.
That's a lesson that's quickly learned by Latif Yahia, who is a near-twin for Hussein's viciously rabbity son, Uday. As played by Dominic Cooper (An Education), Latif is a conscientious soldier in Hussein's army with no interest in either politics or serving the Hussein government anymore than he is forced to.
But in The Devil's Double, based on a true story, Latif is, in fact, coerced -- nay, required, mandated, forced -- to become Uday Hussein's double. The alternatives are dire -- torture for him and, if he still refuses, torture and/or death for his parents. What can he do except agree?
Which becomes the moral crux of Lee Tamahori's viciously compelling film: Is there a point at which you become culpable for acts you are forced to witness, to participate in? If there is no escape other than death -- or if even your death holds the promise of torture and death for your family and loved ones -- can you be considered guilty for anything you do?
Even if the answer to that question is no, is there any way you can live with yourself if you are complicit in atrocities and murder? What is the toll on your soul just from being a witness to the horrifying treatment of others without offering protest?
These are issues that are never discussed in the course of Tamahori's film -- but they will undoubtedly lodge in the mind of the viewer. The situation Latif faces in The Devil's Double is a nightmare, from which there seemingly is no escape. Yet he does attempt to escape, often with harsh consequences for himself.
The backdrop of the film is the period between the Iran-Iraq war, in which Latif fights heroically, and the first Gulf War. Latif is an eyewitness to the excess of Uday, who drinks and drugs to excess, cuts a sexual swath through the palace faithful, even as he kills enemies and perceived enemies with relish and on impulse. Latif is on hand to make public appearances for Uday when Uday needs to be in two places at once, or when he's too hung-over -- or when there's a plausible threat against his life.
Latif becomes a believable double, learning to mimic Uday's speaking style, his idioms, his cocky posture and shoot-first mentality. But Latif is constantly looking for his way out -- not to kill Uday and take his place but to simply escape from his servitude and status as wingman to a monster, to flee the country and have a life of his own.
The action in this film is bloody and unnerving, whether it is Uday gigglingly torturing and raping young women or shooting and stabbing his perceived enemies. He cackles like some Semitic version of Woody Woodpecker as he commits one horror after another.
Amazingly, Dominic Cooper plays both roles here, something I didn't realize until I looked at the press notes halfway through the film. He's so convincingly different as Latif -- quiet, dignified, reserved, simmering -- that, at first, you're convinced that you're watching two different actors. It's the kind of performance that can be showy and inauthentic; Cooper, instead, makes each character singular, even when Latif is consciously trying to imitate Uday.
Indeed, Cooper's work here is absolutely Oscar-worthy, a tour de force that should be remembered at year's end. Chilling, thrilling and hard to take at times, The Devil's Double offers one of the great performances of this or any year -- or is it two performances?
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