The Devil’s Double
Film review by: Witney Seibold
Dominic Cooper is amazing in Lee Tamahori‘s “The Devil’s Double.” He is on almost every single shot of the film, as he plays not only Uday Hussein, the crazier, more narcissistic, and dangerously criminal son of Saddam Hussein, but also (thanks to some seamless special effects) a put-upon Iraqi soldier named Latif who has been drafted into the difficult role of being Uday’s decoy. As Latif, he is intense and soulful and disgusted by his boss, but unable to do anything about it. As Uday, he is madness incarnate.
This is all supposedly based on fact, as the material was taken from Latif Yahia’s autobiography. Uday was indeed a dangerous criminal, and Cooper, energetic and convincing, has a grand time re-enacting the horrific evils of the man. Uday would force people to strip at gunpoint. He would pluck teenage girls from the streets only to get them drunk, rape them, kill them, and discard their bodies out in the desert. He once raped a bride on her wedding day. Thanks to one particularly creepy scene, we get the idea that he had a vaguely incestuous affair with his mother. At a party, he once gutted one of his father’s friends on the buffet table. The on-screen depiction of this even is pretty shocking. And he did it all with the attitude of smiling, spoiled partyboy.
Latif is a bit more of a cipher, but then he is in a position where he’s not allowed to express himself. Uday likes him, and even calls him “brother,” but he also has a habit of killing anyone who doesn’t approve of him. For Latif, it’s only a matter of time before Uday loses interest and shoots him on a whim. If he tries to run away, Uday will shoot him. If he talks, Uday will shoot him. All Latif can do is sit back and watch the gleeful atrocities.
Why does Uday need a decoy? Well, apart from the assassination attempts, Uday seems to be the ultimate narcissist, who takes on a double not only as political protection, but as an act of vanity. He wants to raise a clone of himself. Interact with himself. If the film pushed far enough, Uday and Latif would have been having sex too. This bizarre vanity project seemed to be a preoccupation of the whole family; there’s a surrel scene partway through the film where we see Uday’s disapproving father (Philip Quast) playing tennis with himself.
There is a woman in Uday’s life, in the form of his prowling, French sex kitten Sarrab (Ludivine Sagnier), who seems to be motivated by… actually her character is kind of unclear. It’s implied that she was kidnapped into being Uday’s concubine, but she still is seen at home with her child and sister a few times. She also feels the need to seduce Latif (an act which could get them both killed) not out of solidarity, or mutual fear living in an abusive household, but out of raw, unmitigated lust. The sex scene with the tawny, oft-nude Sagnier and the gorgeous, lithe Cooper (done with no body doubles) is a sexy, sexy sight. Late in the film, during a shootout in the Hussein mansion, Sarrab turns dramatically to Latif and shouts “Take me with you!” It was at that moment, that I felt that Tamahori was trying to make some sort of twisted melodrama, along the line of a Paul Verhoeven film. The rest of the film is a predictable road chase where Latif tries to escape, and Uday keeps finding him.
And, as a film, that what “The Devil’s Double” can ultimately amount to. A gigantic, almost over-the-top historical melodrama (despite its being based on fact). It doesn’t seem to be making any important political statements, despite it taking place in Iraq (which may seem strange to most Americans), and Tamahori is drawing out few lessons. Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Power in the hands of an insane, ultra-rich despotic murderous fratboy corrupts naturally. The film is, however, possessed of two spectacular performances by one amazing performer. Cooper keeps it all together.