Although Enemy is the first of two collaborations with star Jake Gyllenhaal and Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, it was their second film Prisoners that debuted first last fall. That’s probably because although Prisoners is vibrant yet dark, it’s also a more straightforward thriller. Enemy is a completely different beast. It’s a psychological thriller in the purest sense of the genre. It’s confusing, bleak, yet visually stunning. Villenueve isn’t interested in telling a straightforward story. Instead he drops hints, twists plot points, and focuses on the unraveling of the lives of Gyllenhaal, who plays two distinct characters. It also boasts one of the strangest and boldest endings of any recent film, but one that will keep the conversation going.
Visually imbued with a smoggy yellow, Gyllenhaal plays Adam, an apparently despondent history professor in Toronto. Aside from his lectures on totalitarian government in which he describes society is increasingly distracted by entertainment, his life only consists of a muted relationship with his girlfriend Mary (Melanie Laurent). But his world is turned upside down after a co-worker recommends a local film to him. Confessing he’s not really a movie guy, he’s compelled to check it out all the same. That’s when he discovers bit actor Anthony St. Claire. He doesn’t just look like Adam, he looks identical.
Villenueve sets up the colliding worlds of Adam and Anthony — whose wife Helen (Sarah Gadon) just happens to resemble Mary — in a way viewers would expect, but soon sets it spinning out of control. Hints are dropped, like Adam’s mother played by Isabella Rossellini shooting down his claims of a double while lamenting he give up his dreams as a “third rate actor” to his bemusement. Villenueve leaves open many strings of possibilities without confirming anything.
It’s the kind of film that isn’t for those looking for simple entertainment. Rather, it’s a film that’s perfect for the digital age that can be watched over and over, and picked apart piece by piece. What Adam doesn’t foresee is that Anthony has a dark side. As Adam and Anthony’s lives slowly confront one another, the film begins spinning off its axis as the feeling of a thriller permeates every scene but the questions only pile on top of one another, instead of being tidied up.
But Villenueve is so adept at creating a visually and emotionally compelling film that the puzzle is half the fun. Like last year’s similarly visceral Upstream Color, Enemy is more of an experience than a straight story. Littered with images of spiders — including one truly horrifying image of a spider overtaking Toronto in Adam’s dream — Villenueve provides suggestions of answers, but leaves it to the viewer to figure out. It’s rare for a film to be so oblique yet so confident and engaging. It’s a testament to Villenueve’s rising status as an auteur that he can pull it off.
Rating: 4 out of 5