Have you ever wished a fantastic song struck up the moment you walked into a room? It’s something that happens in movies, never in real life. But there are sounds that do accompany us in our every day lives. The ambient sound of the wind, cars driving by, idle chatter, coffee brewing. We rarely notice these noises because they are simply a part of the background, but what if suddenly all these unnoticeable noises were amplified? A subway car rushing by so loudly you’re forced to cover your ears. The chatter in a coffee shop becoming deafening. A copy machine sounding like gun fire. And no one else seems to notice.
You would think you were going crazy, right?
This is exactly what seems to be happening to Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg) in The Double. Simon seems like an ordinary guy with a boring job, a small apartment, and a crush on a girl, but his world also seems off-kilter thanks to the film’s choice to turn up all the ambient noises that usually help give a scene a sense of grounding reality. Then again, Simon may not be living in reality, and The Double’s ambient assault helps convey this idea without needing to explicitly say it.
When Simon is introduced to his new co-worker, James, who happens to look exactly like Simon, it makes sense that Simon would start to feel like he is losing his mind – especially when no one else seems to agree that their similar appearance is striking and more than a little strange. But director Richard Ayoade creates a world that seems to live on its own timeline – long before James comes on the scene. This world is full of amplified ambient noises and muted colors that reflect Simon’s unsettled and chaotic mindset.
James is the complete foil to Simon – confident, successful and a bit cocky. Thanks to the fact that they look exactly alike, the moment Simon meets James, he knows something is clearly off even though we, as the audience, have long suspected that Simon was losing it.
In another film where a man grapples with his polar opposite, Fight Club, it takes Edward Norton’s character a bit longer to realize the true nature of his buddy Tyler (Brad Pitt) thanks to their differing appearances, but something is definitely off from the get-go. Fight Club also utilizes amplified ambient noise and a muted color palette to set the tone from the beginning that things may not be what they seem. That reality is too loud.
The composers for The Double and Fight Club, Andrew Hewitt and The Dust Brothers respectively, created music that helped add to this alien and off-putting feeling by incorporating odd sounds into the music itself. Instead of normal percussion, Hewitt relied on the loud and abrasive sound of a type writer and indistinguishable electronic noises to drive the music and further enhance the feeling that Simon’s world is closing in around him on tracks like “Mr. Papadopoulos.”
The Dust Brothers used a similar approach by infusing their score with odd sounds to help reinforce the odd ambient noises (see: “Who Is Tyler Durden?”) to give the overall impression that things in world of Fight Club are happening within the confines of insanity. Although the use of ambient sounds in Fight Club is more subtle than in The Double, the effect remains and helps to allow us to share the lead character’s madness.
Sound design in both of these cases becomes a critical piece of the experience because it puts the viewer directly in the head space of the figures on screen. You can see it and you can understand it, but when you turn up sounds that are meant to be left to the background, the story experience transforms into a visceral, claustrophobic hell.
The technique adds a loud, chaotic, alien, extra sensory dimension that can surround us more than visuals alone. It makes you an active part of these film’s worlds rather than someone passively feeling empathetic for that character’s situation. Having a powerful, aggressive sound start up out of nowhere is startling (jump scare style), but it’s when you simply turn up the sounds that should be present, that these otherwise everyday elements become cause for concern.
The soundtrack for The Double will be available 5/6 and the film comes out in limited release 5/9