Last year’s Prisoners had an atmosphere driven by dread. Still, it was completely accessible and even with a clunky finale still managed to deliver conventional genre thrills. Director Denis Villeneuve‘s followup, Enemy, is a thriller that makes Prisoners light and cheery by comparison thanks in part to screenwriter Javier Gullón‘s ceaseless desire to ask thought-provoking questions throughout his meaty mystery.
Villeneuve’s film is an intense experience. Nothing ever feels right in this loose adaptation of “The Double,” even at the start of the film when we see the protagonist’s harmlessly repetitive lifestyle. Adam Bell (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a reclusive professor whose personal life is almost nonexistent. The most he has going for him is his distant girlfriend (Melanie Laurent). Everything in his life is on repeat until a fellow staff member recommends a local film to him. This is when Adam discovers Anthony St. Claire (Jake Gyllenhaal), an actor who looks exactly like him.
The moral of this story: don’t ever accept movie recommendations. What follows that set up makes for a suspenseful 90 minutes that transitions from one scene to the next with an overwhelming fluidity. There’s not an expendable shot in this entire film as Villeneuve and cinematographer Nicolas Bolduc turn Toronto into a beautifully hellish landscape. The high-rise buildings alone have an unnerving effect.
Adam and Toronto have an uneasy energy , but it’s not until Anthony comes into the picture that Enemy becomes a full on horror movie. Anthony, naturally being an actor, is vain, psychopathic, and dangerous. Seeing Adam and him in a room together is something else, and not because we’re watching two equally captivating, and yet completely different performances from Gyllenhaal. This is a film where anything can go wrong at any given moment.
Even the final shot doesn’t let us off the hook, and it’s a moment bound to provoke people. It’s shocking, and yet makes total sense when all else is considered. There’s recurring images of spiders in the film, all of which share a dreamlike aesthetic, even when they’re featured in the “real world.” A spider is the perfect creature to lend Enemy a sense of visual and structural symmetry. The most harmless of spiders induce fear and, on top of that, all the characters feel like they’re trapped in a web. When a spider traps its prey, we all know what happens.
We’re left dangling as to why they’re trapped, where they’re going, and what’s next. The movie ends 15 minutes before a more conventional ending would have come. This isn’t a movie afraid to lose viewers by posing new questions at every turn. Is it about how all of us have a dark side we try to hide from the world? Are we all our own worst enemy? Or is it about how interchangeable some of us are?
When two people go at each other in film, whether they’re lookalikes or not, there’s usually the innocent straight man and the antagonist off his rocker. Anthony is the scarier of the two, but Adam is no a saint either. He’s the kind of guy who has the potential to do what Anthony does. Perhaps Anthony is Adam’s dream version of himself that he comes to realize is more of a nightmare.
The fight that unfolds between them is personal. Adam and Anthony aren’t the only characters at risk, but so are their blonde girlfriends. The shared hair color is worth nothing, because it’s doubtful that isn’t a deliberate choice — nothing is an accident in this movie. All throughout the movie there are visual duplicates. Even Anthony’s apartment is filled with twos, like, makeup products on his girlfriend’s (Sarah Gadon) crowded makeup counter.
Sometimes even items from Anthony and Adam’s lives overlap. They both have an identical photograph of themselves, which is a clue the movie does not put a face-slapping exclamation point on. Enemy lets its audience put the dots together, but every single one of those dots have been completely thought out by Villeneuve and all involved.
The Upside: A performance Jake Gyllenhaal will be remembered for; tightly scripted, shot, paced, and edited; Sarah Gordon is always welcomed; you immediately want to watch it again
The Downside: Leaves you selfishly wanting more
On The Side: Both Enemy and Prisoners premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last year.
Correction: An earlier version of this review referred to Sarah Gadon as Sarah Gordon. Our apologies.