If interminably dark and unsettling Prisoners weren’t enough of a convincer that Jake Gyllenhaal and Denis Villeneuve is the next big actor/director tandem, then perhaps Enemy will do the trick. Actually shot prior to Prisoners, the sinister and devious Enemy is an epic mind-screw that crawls around in the dark corners of the psyche like a spider in a dusty attic. Subdued, deliberate in execution yet infuriatingly incoherent, Villeneuve's film is as confusing as it is transfixing.
“Chaos is merely order yet deciphered,” the ominous title sequence flashes and muddies the psychological waters in a way that never quite recedes. Somewhat loosely based on Jose Saramago's Portuguese novel, Javier Gullon's sparse script is pregnant with disturbing pscho-sexual context that the source material largely understates. In what is becoming a string of impressively dark lead performances, Gyllenhaal tackles the dual role of dull college professor Adam Bell and his marginally more charismatic doppelganger, Anthony. Adam's boring existence consists of little more than teaching his class, grading papers in his anonymous Toronto apartment, and having regular sex with his girlfriend (Melanie Laurent), who he doesn't seem to share much in common with. Captured in coffee-stain yellows by cinematographer Nicolas Bolduc, Adam's world is one of sickening loneliness and isolation. One night after a chatty colleague randomly recommends a movie, to which the Adam initially responds with an unexpected snark, he goes and rents the film anyway and makes a startling discovery. There in the background, in a minor role few would notice, appears to be his exact duplicate.
Fraught with terrifying dreams of a decidedly alien nature, Adam's buried paranoia bursts forth with this new revelation. Unable to resist, he begins to investigate the nature of Anthony's existence, eventually calling the man's house and connecting with his very pregnant wife (Sarah Gadon, a Cronenberg favorite of late) who thinks he's the husband of one of Anthony's mistresses. An excited but cautious meeting between the two men in a rundown hotel confirms that they aren't siblings but perfect replicas, distinct only in their wildly differing personalities. Where Adam is introverted and almost pathologically nervous, Anthony is a schemer, a devilish rogue and risk-taker. It's Anthony who figures that he can have his cake and eat it too with both women, expecting that Adam would be too meek to do anything about it. As the layers are peeled back on both men, we learn that they share more than just a physical bond, but perhaps a similarly demented sexual thirst.
At only about 90 minutes, Villeneuve's slow burn approach to this clash of male egos can prove an exhaustive exercise, but he still manages to captivate with an unsettling Fincher-esque tone and Gyllenhaal's mesmerizing performance. More an art-house thriller than the big studio Prisoners, Enemy presents an abstract, off-the-wall dreamscape that doesn't always jibe with the seriousness of the situation. Chillingly embraced by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans' disquieting soundtrack, the occasional splashes of B-movie humor seem deliberately placed to leave you unprepared for the impressively terrifying and shocking finale, one of such instant horror it snaps everything into focus.
Enemy will be seen as an off anomaly to some, but it explores human (particularly male) frailty with Villeneuve's meticulous eye for oppressive mood. If anything, it proves he's one of the most interesting and forward-thinking directors working today, and hopefully he has the foresight to keep Gyllenhaal close at hand.