Split Decision: Doppelgängers and Mistaken Identities
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This week’s question:
In honor of Jordan Peele’s Us, what is your favorite movie featuring doppelgängers or mistaken identity?
As an identical twin I have more frustration with twin/doppleganger films because they generally tend to play up or down the similarities and differences of the characters rather than treat both people as individuals. But there are some great films in this subgenre. I really loved Aaron Katz's Gemini last year. This twisty thriller had a personal assistant (Lola Kirke) to a famous actress investigating a murder. It's almost a spoiler to say there are doubles--not that the title doesn't hint at that--but this nifty film flips the switch and provides an inside baseball look at Hollywood that is both witty and knowing.
I've got to go with Adaptation. No, it's not a doppelgänger movie on its surface, as both Kaufman brothers (played masterfully by Nic Cage) are real, living human beings in the text of the film. But this still qualifies, I think, because in failing to adapt The Orchid Thief in a classic sense, it took Kaufman creating an adjacent version of himself that isn't so beholden to convention to find an angle through which to tell the story. His adaptation then took on a life of its own, becoming a bizarro companion to the source material — itself a reflection the familial relationship between Charlie and his imaginary brother.
Much like Villeneuve's Enemy or Ayoade's The Double, doppelgängers are often used to represent our darker (or at minimum "less restricted") selves, and I think Adaptation comes to some fantastic conclusions about how we mustn't fight this darkness so much as we should learn to dance with it. If ever there were a biopic to be made about Kaufman, it might be more factually accurate than something like Adaptation, but couldn't hold a candle to the truths he explores in it. Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York also explores this notion, albeit in a less accessible, more surreal way.
And yeah, Coherence rules.
David Cronenberg's Dead Ringers, later remade by the Olsen Twins as It Takes Two, is one of the creepiest movies out there, and now I'm trying to figure out why so many movies play twins for scares. Jeremy Irons is already a severe-looking dude, and when you get two of them, and they've got an arsenal of David Cronenberg-y metal tools, and when they're gynecologists, you're in for a movie that will make you uneasy! Ultimately, this is an uplifting film about two similar twins separating and becoming more individual.
For my doppelganger choice, I'm going to skip 2014's Enemy despite the fact that I LOVE it and give that opportunity to someone else (If someone doesn't choose Enemy for this list, we've all failed). Instead, I'd like to highlight The One I Love from 2014. Written by Justin Lader and directed by Charlie McDowell (the team that would go on to make Netflix's The Discovery), the film stars Elisabeth Moss and Mark Duplass as a struggling couple who are recommended a weekend retreat to help fix their marital woes. There, they discover another couple that suspiciously looks just like them, and a strange weekend of personal growth ensues. This is an excellent character drama with incredible lead performances that just so happens to be a strong science-fiction movie as well.
My pick is Another Earth, mainly because the film wrestles with the idea that not only is life filled with a million choices, each one taking you down one possible road, but that all those choices could be happening at the same time, to other versions of you, in a multitude of potential realities. By the end of the film, Rhoda (Brit Marling) comes face-to-face with the future that she lost because of chance, and the realization that at least somewhere, that future became a reality for another version of herself (maybe). I also love the idea that you as a person are actually comprised of a million different versions of yourself, all living out and reacting to the same set of circumstances but with differing results based on choices this version of yourself is making. Trust me, this rabbit hole runs deep.
Since I recently picked The Great Dictator, will pivot and go with a horror movie aimed at kids about a little girl who finds an alternate world where everyone has buttons for eyes. Coraline sees its protagonist (voiced by Dakota Fanning) wrestle with her identity as she attempts to free souls from the Other world. It’s heavy stuff brought to life with director Henry Slice’s (the director of Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas) masterful use of the stop-motion medium, giving both the mundane and the horror aspects of the film a tactile feel that underlines that juxtaposition.
While there are many better uses of the theme out there, I want to give a special shout out to Tony Scott's Enemy Of The State- the only film brave enough to cast both Jamie Kennedy and Seth Green. In addition to that pair, there is also Scott Caan and Jake Busey, both sporting the same ex-military spiky haircut, and both young (at the time) sons of famous actors. The film itself is a Hitchcockian riff on the "wrong man" genre, with Will Smith on the run from a shadowy government organization after the death of a Senator- borrowing liberally from movies like North By Northwest and, well, The Wrong Man. There's just something so fun about seeing these characters practically self-replicate.
This is a great question... some of my favorite movies of all time feature mistaken identity. It's a simple device that creates natural tension and drama. Sometimes the audience is in on the secret, sometimes the identity is the ultimate twist, but you can almost guarantee a good time at the movies if there's a doppelgänger or less-than-forthcoming-about-who-they-are character in the mix.
Just a few that that jump to mind are Duncan Jones' criminally underrated Moon, my favorite Christopher Nolan movie, The Prestige, and of course, the absolutely bonkers John Woo actioner, Face / Off.
But the film I think perfectly illustrates the inherent drama to be mined from this sub-genre is The Talented Mr. Ripley. There are plenty of reasons to love this flick. The movie is mostly set against the beautiful Almafi Coast, the characters in the story are imbued with subtle complexity, the violence is striking, and Jude Law, Gweneth Paltrow, Cate Blanchett, and Philip Seymour Hoffman turn in great supporting performances. But the most remarkable of all is Matt Damon, who plays the titular Tom Ridley. Damon creates a man who is so desperate to be liked, so intent on living the luxurious lifestyle that he has a glimpse of, that he completely dispenses with humanity and leaps headfirst down the rabbit hole of lies and deception. Even as he knows that the walls are closing in on him, Ripley can't help himself to the compulsions of lying, explaining away his motivations as innocent and helpless. It's riveting stuff.
There have been so many incredible movies named, but I would be remiss if I didn't throw Vertigo into the mix. It is one of the most expertly executed films...in general, but throwing the whole mistaken identity/doppelgänger theme into the mix, it's hard to pass it by.
I do worry that there are people who haven't seen it somehow, and honestly, with the little I've said I've already said to much. So, for the (I hope) majority who have seen it, you know what I mean. For everyone else, my goodness, stop messing around and watch this masterpiece already.
I'd go so far as to say that the oeuvre of David Lynch is populated abundantly by doppelgangers, doubles, refracted versions of characters and character types. Even events themselves are "doppeled" as it were. Inland Empire goes wholesale into this notion of multiples in a way that only a dissertation can explain, so allow me to forego that at the moment (yes, I have started a dissertation). One of the most affecting doppels in Lynch's catalog is that of Madeline "Maddy" Ferguson, platinum blonde Laura Palmer's brunette twin-like cousin who visits Twin Peaks in the wake of Laura's death (both played by Sheryl Lee). Subsumed by the darkness of those events, latently sensitive to visions of the future and the supernatural, party to the investigative plots of James and Donna in search of Laura's killer, and unknowingly living with the enemy, altruistic Maddy is intoxicated by the idea of being able to "be" Laura, cautiously thrilled by being perceived as someone else, even inhabiting the role with costume to pull the wool over someone's eyes. Their intense childhood connection which was more like a kindred sisterhood than cousin-hood makes this ultimately tragic role somewhat fateful. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but they also say that "imitation is suicide". Thanks to Lee's ability to access deep emotion with sincerity and spontaneity Maddy's arch is heartbreaking, and her conclusion is one unshakable nightmare, sharing yet more in common with Laura until the end.
Being John Malkovich is THE mistaken identity movie because everybody's identity is in flux when they get to be Malkovitch. Even Malkovitch gets to be Malkovitch and nobody knows who is being John Malkovitch at any one time. There's also extra layers of doppelganger-ness, as Craig (John Cusack) also has puppet versions of himself and everybody he loves, adding layer upon layer of who is speaking for who at any one time. It's all delightfully weird and dizzying.
Honourable mention: The Parent Trap. Both of them. I love a good "you're just like me, but with a different haircut!" story.