Some films let it all hang out on first viewing; others play coy demanding you get to know them a little better first. Enemy, the other half of a collaboration between Canadian director Denis Villeneuve and actor Jake Gyllenhaal that previously produced Prisoners, sits firmly in the latter category. A dense, complex work offering intricately woven clues in lieu of answers, Enemy is one impressive head scratcher despite an emotional detachment that reduces the final impact.
Loosely adapted from José Saramago’s The Double with no shortage of structural flair, screenwriter Javier Gullón and Villeneuve introduce Adam (Gyllenhaal), an uninspiring history lecturer. He sticks to a rigid routine of monotonous lectures on the control exerted by authoritarian forces, and quiet evenings in culminating in sex with his girlfriend Mary (Mélanie Laurent). A life that seems more a mechanical process than an actual life is jolted sideways when Adam sees a bit part actor who looks just like him. Setting out to track down this doppelganger, he finds Anthony (also Gyllenhaal) and his pregnant wife Helen (Sarah Gadon), leading them all down a dangerous rabbit hole of sex clubs, spiders and shifting identities.
Enemy is certainly not afraid to take a circuitous route. Repetition features strongly, the same conversations and images appearing frequently. Establishing an air of fractious confusion, aided by a muggy and oppressive score and yellow tinged cinematography, Villeneuve guides Adam through a world full of perplexing occurrences. Without revealing the secrets hidden in Gullón’s screenplay, he shines just enough light to help anyone watching reach the final destination alone.
As fascinating as it is to pull at a thread lying across jumbled cityscapes and dimly lit rooms, there’s an emotional detachment sitting alongside the undeniably clever structure. Enemy is at once intellectually stimulating and disappointingly hollow. The focus so intensely on carefully constructed clues, characters are dismissed making it hard to feel much more than a steadily reducing thrill on reaching a possible solution.
This is not the fault of Gyllenhaal. He takes on both roles confidently, drawing out two distinct personas. His Adam is a conflicted figure, a man for whom a phone call can provoke ragged breathing and nervous sweat. Anthony by contrast is smooth charisma and diminished empathy. When the two first meet, he towers over his counterpart sending Adam scurrying from the room. Unfortunately, Gadon and Laurent are largely sidelined. Gadon shines when allowed the chance, though she is left to float around the periphery for too long. Laurent doesn’t even get a look in, relegated to practical anonymity.
Like Adam and Anthony, Enemy is so interested in itself it fails to engage with others. It’s a clever parlour game that can’t quite hold up when unravelled, even if there is a healthy degree of satisfaction in the unravelling. However, from every cryptic clue right down to the startling ending, this is a film that resolutely refuses to compromise. It not only needs a rewatch; it has earned one too.
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Writers: José Saramago (novel), Javier Gullón
Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Mélanie Laurent, Sarah Gadon
Runtime: 90 min
Country: Canada, Spain