Film Review: Enemy

A Kafkaesque psychological thriller about a man who discovers his double that provides few answers to its central mystery but beguiles via a mood of oppressive existential dread.

Jake Gyllenhaal tumbles down a Kafkaesque rabbit hole in Enemy, the star’s second collaboration—after last year’s Prisoners—with director Denis Villeneuve. Unlike their more mainstream prior project, Gyllenhaal and Villeneuve’s latest is a mind-bending whatsit that embraces and revels in ambiguity and mystery, refusing to provide literal explanations or tidy conclusions for its story about a college history professor named Adam Bell (Gyllenhaal) who, while watching a movie recommended by a co-worker, spies an actor in the cast who could be his twin. A few Google searches later, and Adam has located Anthony St. Claire (Gyllenhaal), who’s in fact his exact doppelganger—a situation that’s soon exacerbated by the discovery that Adam’s blonde girlfriend (Mélanie Laurent) is the virtual spitting image of Anthony’s pregnant wife Helen (Sarah Gadon).

This unfathomable revelation wracks Adam with an existential dread and confusion that’s amplified by Villeneuve’s direction. Scored to bass-heavy percussive beats, his long, ominous pans obscure faces and fixate on doubling imagery, all as he duplicates sequences of events to create a haunting sense of time, and existence, repeating on itself. Adam’s classroom lecture on dictatorships is focused on the recurring nature of historical patterns, and Enemy presents its own cyclical conceit (replete with implications about both men’s discontent with the women in their lives) as something at once natural and strangely twisted and inexplicable. Loosely adapting Portuguese author José Saramago’s novel The Double, Villeneuve forgoes easy Fight Club-style one-to-one answers to the questions posed by his set-up, instead drenching Adam and Anthony’s tale in a mood of bewildered anxiety and terror.

Before the two can face each other, Helen (Sarah Gadon), suspecting her husband has been unfaithful yet again, seeks out Adam. Their casual conversation on a campus courtyard park bench—he unaware of who she is—resounds with not just tension but, in Helen’s stunned countenance, a more primal, irrational fear of learning that the world has gone unhinged. Enemy proceeds with methodical, slow-burn Kubrickian portent and menace that’s initially established in an opening scene of Anthony using a key to unlock a basement door that leads to a room full of men silently watching women strip, pleasure themselves, and stomp on a giant spider brought out on a silver platter. The purpose and meaning of this introductory sequence is kept as oblique as is the fundamental nature of Adam and Anthony, twins caught in a spiraling reality that’s visualized by a pair of coiled skyscrapers near Anthony’s apartment building.

Symbols abound, but as Adam and Anthony’s fates become more intertwined, Villeneuve denies any sense of comforting lucidity, instead having his characters navigate a series of imposing architectural spaces and long hallways—the latter suggesting transitions from one state of being to another—as if in a waking nightmare. Embodied by a bearded, haunted Gyllenhaal as slight light/dark variations of each other (a notion furthered by Villeneuve’s deft interplay of yellow hues and inky shadows), both Adam and Anthony—their faces often obscured by sunglasses or a motorcycle helmet, or blotted out in silhouette—are presented as equally blind to their own selves, even as Anthony sets them on a dangerous role-reversal course. A mystifying head-trip that’s less concerned with soothing resolutions than with crafting an atmosphere of philosophical identity crisis, Enemy is a film likely to leave viewers scratching their heads all the way through to its finale, in which the nature of self, and specifically the predatory nature of one’s secret desire, comes to horrifyingly gigantic life.