Review: 'Jonathan', Ansel Elgort Plays Dual Roles In A Suspenseful Body Double Thriller

Part sci-fi, part body horror, part psychological thriller, Bill Oliver's Jonathan is a compelling twist on the old Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde formula. Duality is at the heart of this particular story, and we've seen it play out in thousands of different ways before. Even Marvel's Incredible Hulk plays with the idea of two distinct personalities existing in the same entity, with the Freudian Id/Super-Ego battling it out for dominance. But Jonathan is a little bit different, as the two halves know of one another's existence and live in relative harmony. Oh, and they are actually siblings rather than complete strangers.

Is simple sibling rivalry enough to break such a fragile balance? That's just one of the many questions raised by Oliver in his suspenseful, deeply engrossing film which gives Ansel Elgort one of his most complex performances in a dual role. He plays both Jonathan and John, brothers who share one single body with each holding dominance for 12 hours. Jonathan is the responsible one, basically living like a hermit when he's not building up an impressive career as an architect. When we first see him he's recording a video message for John, and that's when we learn they update each other about all of the day's happenings just to avoid any confusion. Jonathan even cooks John dinner. When John takes over he indulges in what the night offers him; he's impulsive, he's making friends, going out to bars, and meeting women. When Jonathan realizes the fatigue he's feeling is abnormal, he knows John is up to something. They have a certain set of rules. No girlfriends. Tell each other EVERYTHING. No lying. And did I mention "no girlfriends"?

Of course, it's a woman. It's always a woman. John has been hanging out with Elena (Suki Waterhouse), who doesn't suspect what's going on. When Jonathan, who has hired a detective (Matt Bomer in a weird cameo) to find out the truth, confronts John it leads to a break in their relationship. John disappears, stops making videos, and stops contacting Jonathan in any way. But can these two halves really exist without the other? Or are they forever co-dependent despite their attempts to establish independence?

The film's first act can feel a little bit like a boring version of Memento, with John and Jonathan spending the bulk of their time ticking explaining details of the daily routine. Jonathan, in particular, is flat and personality-free, which is the point but since things are mostly seen from his perspective it doesn't make for entertaining viewing. All of that changes when John disappears and Jonathan's world starts to crumble out of loneliness. He begins reaching out to Elena, becoming friends with her and then much more than that. If they were normal brothers in separate bodies would Jonathan even consider doing something like that? How deep does his obsession with John run that he's begun sniffing around his ex-girlfriends? Since we tend to see things through Jonathan's eyes it leaves a lot of blank spaces to fill, some of which are picked up by Dr. Naiman (Patricia Clarkson), a neurologist who has been treating the brothers since childhood. If the first half of the movie is about Elena breaking up the brotherly bond, the second half is about their complicated feelings towards Naiman, and her conflicted feelings towards them.

As tensions mount and the situation grows increasingly desperate, Oliver and his trio of screenwriters always keep the film grounded in some kernel of truth. Never does it spin out of control or lean too heavy on sci-fi or horror elements, although both of those genres are clearly inspirations. John/Jonathan react out of a desire for individual expression, but at the same time, it's something they can never truly achieve. One of their rules is that they will always be one another's best friend, but how can that be when there can be no shared experience? If Jonathan has a bad day, he can't call up John on the phone or go out with him for a drink. When the brothers hurt one another, can there truly be reconciliation without direct confrontation?  How easy is it to forgive when you see the cause of your pain every time you look in the mirror?

Elgort is a hit-or-miss actor for me, as he seems to rise and fall with the quality of the material. It's more than just the messy hair and loose-fitting clothes that differentiate his split performances here. The way he moves and talks is different. John slouches on the couch and delivers his video messages with a slang the straight-arrow Jonathan can only furrow his brow at.

Oliver sells out his intriguing premise a little bit in the final act, taking a lot of choice from his characters with a sudden, unnecessary twist. At the same time, he all but telegraphs how things will end for John/Jonathan, when it had been completely uncertain for so long.  Still, Jonathan is a gripping, somber tale about the brotherly bond and the danger in being unable to grow independent of it.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5