Sundance – The Devil’s Double
Saddam Hussein’s regime seems like an obvious story for a film, but not so much an independent one. Imagine my surprise when there just happened to be one at Sundance, called The Devil’s Double, starring two of the best young actors out there, Dominic Cooper (of History Boys and An Education) and Ludivine Sagnier (of Girl Cut in Two and Mesrine).
Instead of focusing directly on Saddam, in typical Sundance style, New Zealand’s Lee Tamahori’s story focuses on a smaller issue, using the larger one as context to create a very defined sense of place. In this case, the subject of The Devil’s Double is Uday Hussein, Saddam’s eldest son and heir apparent for much of the time his father was in control. The film chronicles the unstable relationship Uday has with his father, how he falls out of favor with him, his general insanity, and particularly his recruiting and grooming of a body double named Latif Yahia–the straight man in the story of Uday’s maniacal derangement. The rumor’s of the extent of Uday’s depravity are widespread, and can be read about in just enough detail here. Indeed, the aberrant torture methods Uday allegedly loved make a graphic appearance in the film’s first act. As with Chekov’s gun, I had a dreadful feeling these would resurface in the film’s conclusion.
Powered by outstanding performances, two by Cooper, the film provides a vividly terrifying, but fascinating look into the inner circles of the Husseins, where’s there’s unbelievable wealth, women, and pure lack of control. Latif undergoes surgery, and dental work. He learns to match Uday’s high-pitched voice and is introduced everywhere as Saddam’s third son, much to the confusion of many. Latif initially resists, but threats of the murder and rape of his entire family coerces him into Uday’s ugly entourage. Sagnier comes into the story as Sarrab, Uday’s favorite lay. Obviously the Latif and Sarrab must enter into a forbidden tryst, what else are movies for?
Latif was, of course, a real person. He escaped Iraq in the early nineties and wrote a book about his life, also titled The Devil’s Double. How faithful Tamahori and screenwriter Michael Thomas stayed to that book, or even how authentic the book is itself, is unsure. But there are several events in the film that seem to be deeply rooted in reality. At a State party in 1988, Uday caned his father’s personal valet and food taster in front of foreign guests of the government. He eventually killed the man with an electric carving knife. In Devil, Uday uses a knife similar to a machete, and disembowels the man. These seem like acceptable artistic licenses, neither sensationalizing, nor downplaying the depravity of Uday. Several other of these rumored incidents are explored fully, like his habit of picking up school girls off the streets that are never seen again.
Cooper’s dual performances of Latif and Uday are remarkable. He seemlessly slides between the two characters, even when sometimes called upon to act as Latif acting as Uday. Of course this sort of thing begs comparison to the recent performances turned by Sam Rockwell in Moon, and Ed Norton in Leaves of Grass, both of whom succeeded admirably. While Cooper’s performances are outstandingly successful, both terrifying and moving, he’s held back by a few scenes where, what I assume are budgetary deficiencies, the effects required for Latif and Uday to interact with each other are frightfully cringe-worthy. These scenes are few, but certainly difficult to forget among an otherwise thrilling ride of discos, coke, women, and unmotivated violence.
The film’s climax surrounds the escalating tensions between Iraq and Kuwait, which rage out of control once the United States steps in to aid Kuwait. Instead of focusing on the obvious, the attacks on Baghdad serve as the backdrop for a hugely dramatic conclusion between Uday and the fleeing Sarrab and Latif. It’s a fitting end to such a story of excess and degeneracy.
Devil is almost always entertaining even when story lags in a few places. The most obvious flaw of the film is the nagging question of, “what’s the point?”. Tamahori did not seem interested in this story of a sociopath in order to preserve its historical significance. Neither did he seem to have anything to say artistically, unless it’s the painfully obvious: power, money, and drugs corrupt, there’s tyranny in the world. The point seems especially valid as the film ends several years before Uday’s actual death in 2003. This portrait of a man’s life has beautiful colors, is pleasantly fluid and entertaining. I’m just not sure why I’d want it around.