Body double stories are always fascinating to me. There’s something delightfully perverse and voyeuristic about the notion of assuming someone else’s identity and walking in their shoes with no one knowing the truth. These stories are tremendous fun for all the secrecy and complex moral issues that they raise and The Scapegoat probably has been the most fulfilling film to date that I have had the pleasure of watching on the subject. There really is a lot to like here. Good casting, very compelling script, nice cinematography, the 1950s period setting on British countryside as well as the whole classic aristocratic family with skeletons in its closet trope… All these added together form a very compelling, morally complex story with several layers of thought provoking moral dilemmas.
I’ve been a fan of Matthew Rhys for a while now thanks to his work in the TV series The Americans, where as an undercover soviet spy he gets to play various different type of roles very convincingly, but I have to say it is the double role he plays here that really has made me appreciate him as an actor more. He has constructed and refined a truly convincing and striking mirror reflection between the two Johns that he portrays. His self-righteous, upper class Johnny is such an unlikable bastard who only grows to more morally deviant with time, where as our protagonist, John, just becomes more and more likable and admirable for all the good he tries to achieve, considering the tight spot he’s forced into. It’s a remarkable performance.
The fact that the swamp of identities happens without John’s consent and he only begrudgingly keeps up the facade after trying and failing to explain that he isn’t the Johnny everybody mistakes him for works wonderfully to make him be sympathetic protagonist and makes the story easier to stomach. This is vital as if you found him inapproachable, the story wouldn’t work. And as the family is on the verge of ruin, John being a proper and kind British gentleman can’t help but to try and fix things, even if he feels uncomfortable about lying about who he is. These do a lot to ease you into the story without the premise feeling overtly dubious morally. This living facade trope, when done right like it is here, is always so oddly endearing. On one side I hate the duplicity of the entire set-up, but the genuine good intentions to mend things for the better rather than maintain the crooked status quo is so compelling that I can’t help but to like it.
The ending can sometines be a bit of a struggle with this type of stories, but here it is very organic and quite pleasing. It feels like a proper conclusion that takes in account the complexity of the issue, as John initially tries to do the right, proper thing and walk away rather than keep up the lie, but then fate intervenes in the most satisfying way and he ends up assuming the life he has built and mended, and now, essentially stolen. The final scene depicting the entire family, now come together and in a better place emotionally, watching the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II feels very pleasing, despite none but one person outside of John himself being in on the lie. You should feel slightly distressed by this, but you don’t. Instead, you gladly accept the situation. Is it even a lie anymore, you might find yourself pondering. Perhaps John simply became the man Johnny could never be, and it was for the best even if it was based on deception. Perhaps the lie became so powerful that it became the truth. I certainly would like to think that. In any case, it’s food for thought, certainly.