Enemy, the latest collaboration between director Denis Villeneuve and his star Jake Gyllenhaal, is not as ambitious as last year’s Prisoners, yet it’s just as menacing. Prisoners is an ensemble-driven thriller, with about a half dozen important speaking roles, while Enemy has only a handful (depending on how you count). Villeneuve’s latest is also an adaptation of the novel The Double by Portuguese novelist José Saramago, except it strips away major plot points in favor of darkly funny surrealist imagery. Like the best thrillers, Enemy is constantly building toward an inevitable resolution, and the startling result will certainly be divisive.
Adam (Gyllenhaal) is a mild-mannered Toronto professor who’s sleepwalking through life. His apartment has nothing in it, he has no friends, and his only connection to humanity is Mary (Mélanie Laurent), and even then their relationship is primarily physical. In the university break room, a colleague asks Adam whether he watches any movies. An awkward conversation follows, one that ends with the colleague offering a recommendation.
Out of curiosity, I guess, Adam puts the DVD in his laptop and notices something strange: an actor who plays a bellboy looks exactly like him. He has no twin, as far as he knows, so he tracks down his copy and finds Anthony, an actor with a nicer apartment and a pregnant wife (Sarah Gadon). It takes a while for Adam/Anthony to meet, face-to-face, and the inevitable encounter creates an existential crisis for both of them.
The most striking thing about Enemy is its cinematography. Shot by Nicolas Bolduc, this vision of Toronto looks like it was burnt by the sun. Except for dark pools of shadow, Bolduc and Villeneuve opt for sickly yellows and earthy browns. The imagery matches the color: Villeneuve shoots primarily in postmodern skyscrapers and vacant lots, to the point where everywhere Adam goes is a concrete prison. Even the building where he teaches is Brutalist and impersonal, as if it’s meant to reflect intense isolation. There’s little sense of whether Adam’s life is by choice or he’s broken by something in his past. His mother (Isabella Rossellini) expresses her concern over a phone call, which is one of a few meager character hints offered by Javier Gullón’s economic screenplay. Still, there’s enough development so it’s easy differentiate between Adam and Anthony.
There have been several psychological studies where an actor plays himself and a twin. Jeremy Irons set the bar with David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers, and Nicolas Cage upped the ante in Adaptation when he played twins with starkly different personalities. But what’s crucially absent from those films and Enemy is the familiarity: the mutual discovery frightens Adam and Anthony, and they immediately perceive their copy as a challenge, or perhaps a threat. Gyllenhaal’s performance demonstrates his command over nonverbal acting. Adam slouches through life, like a loser who feel like he must apologize for everything, while Anthony has more confidence and cruelty.
Their costumes are also well-chosen: Adam is unassuming in his ill-fitting suit jacket, while Anthony looks trim in his designer leather jacket and a motorcycle helmet. Villeneuve’s repeated use of the helmet’s black reflection is an early set-up for uneasy sequences of suspense. There are answers in Enemy, except they’re found in a sinister-looking black surfaces where you may not exactly want to see your reflection.
The differences between the copies are important to the protracted climax, one where they swap identities out of curiosity and a desire for power. Their night in each other’s shoes plays out in surprising ways, and Villeneuve focuses on the inherent violations of pretending to be someone else. There is a moment toward the end of Enemy where someone simply stares at Adam, and the enigmatic look coupled with the lengthy silence heightens the suspense to a level that’s nearly unbearable. It works because Adam and Anthony know what they do is wrong, yet they’re drawn toward transgression because it may lead to bigger answers about identity, self-image, and desire. Villeneuve has his answers, of course, yet they’re not exactly satisfying in a traditional way.
Now there’s simply no way to talk about Enemy without discussing its final moments. One critic wrote, “[It] might have the scariest ending of any film ever made.” The film’s press notes are careful to mention how the film ends with an “unnerving image.” And even though I said there’s a scary ending, trust me when I say that advanced knowledge does not ruin the ending’s power. At the screening I attended, multiple audience-members screamed, and another shouted, “What the FUCK?” (I gasped quietly).
Villeneuve’s final image has a specific purpose: with it, he signals that he was playing with genre all along, to the point where he carefully hid the type of movie his audience was watching. In one way, this is deceitful and a little mean, but to complain about Villeneuve’s manipulation is to miss the point. Whether we’re watching a documentary or a comedy, all films aim to manipulate their audience. In this case, Enemy plays us so deftly and for so long that the only option left is to recoil in absolute surprise, or terror.