Shortly before shooting his excellent major studio debut, Prisoners, director Denis Villeneuve made Enemy, a strange and inscrutable psychological thriller starring Jake Gyllenhaal (who also worked with the director in Prisoners) in a dual role as two men who look exactly alike and are drawn into a dangerous psychological battle with each other. The film’s refusal to deliver a conventional narrative may frustrate some viewers, but should also be embraced by moviegoers who like stories that take place just a step or two removed from reality.
Based on the novel The Double by the late, brilliant Brazilian writer Jose Saramago, Enemy opens with a strange scene that sets the tone for the rest of this unsettling piece. Inside an underground sex club is where we first encounter a bearded Gyllenhaal watching a live exhibition along with several other men. A silver platter is brought out and its lid lifted to reveal a swollen, grotesque tarantula underneath – which is immediately crushed by a woman’s spiked heel.
We then switch to Gyllenhall as history professor Adam Bell, whose detachment and disinterest in his own life is matched only by his remote relationship with his girlfriend Mary (Melanie Laurent). Even sex is yet another mechanical function in Bell’s dreary, disconnected daily routine. But one day, while watching a movie on a recommendation from a colleague, Bell spies an actor in the background of one scene who disconcertingly looks like him. Doing some research, Bell eventually learns Anthony St. Clair’s phone number and calls him – only to be mistaken for Anthony himself by the actor’s pregnant girlfriend Helen (Sarah Gadon).
When the two men finally meet, it is clear that they don’t just resemble each other but are completely identical – right down to matching scars. This has a shattering effect on both their psyches and soon leads to a struggle in which both men wish to prevail – although the upper hand at first seems to go to the much more arrogant and cocksure Anthony (who, we assume, was also the man in the sex club) than the neurotic and at first timid Adam, who is plagued with increasingly horrific nightmares. As the conflict escalates, the women in their lives are inevitably drawn into it as well, with potentially tragic consequences.
That description of the plot makes it seem a lot more straightforward than it actually is, because Enemy functions primarily as a mood piece, with the story drifting forward in a series of surreal, tense set pieces rather than a fast-moving chain of events. Villeneuve, as he did in Incendies and Prisoners, excels at sustaining the mood he wishes to convey; with its bleak, gray view of a tomb-like Toronto, the dark, stifling interiors of both men’s apartments, and the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans doing a lot of heavy lifting, a miasma of dread settles over the film from the beginning and never lets up, almost to the point of self-parody.
But the movie never quite crosses that line, thanks especially to the committed performance(s) from Gyllenhall as Adam and Anthony. The two look the same but are different in subtle ways, leaving the viewer to wonder whether Anthony does actually exist or is some unattainable different version of himself that the disheveled, despondent Adam has dreamed up. The idea that we are looking at two versions of the same man gains strength when the inevitable happens and one of them seduces the other’s woman without her realizing the switch.
Gyllenhaal is excellent in the dual role, and gets solid supporting work from Laurent and Gadon, the latter a recent favorite of David Cronenberg. And she’s not the only Cronenberg connection in the film; Villeneuve’s thematic concerns, somnolent tone and eerie imagery call to mind a lot of the great Canadian director’s early work, along with the cold depiction of Toronto. And then there’s that ending: Villeneuve’s very last shot is horrifying, pretentious and just plain nuts all at the same time, jamming Cronenberg, David Lynch and Kafka into a startling unexpected final image that also brings the film full circle.
Is Enemy easily explained? Not a chance. Villeneuve and Gyllenhaal (and screenwriter Javier Gullon) are not interested in logical arguments or conclusive statements: if you think True Detective was a tough sit, then stay far away from this. But there’s no question that they’ve fashioned an unsettling philosophical/existential horror film that grapples with core questions about identity, fidelity and what it means to be a man – then casts you adrift to find the answers for yourself.