Denis Villeneuve’s “Enemy” might have the scariest ending of any film ever made. While such a proclamation no doubt seems both wildly hyperbolic and uselessly broad (how to compare the sudden revulsion of “Don’t Look Now”’s final shots with the icy, germinating dread imbued into the haunting last shot of a film like “The White Ribbon”?), viewers of certain predispositions and phobias will invariably sign off on such a statement as “Enemy” abruptly cuts to its closing titles.
A strange and agreeably pretentious adaptation of the late José Saramago’s novel “The Double”, Villeneuve’s film is faithful to the source material in broad strokes, but also enjoyably overeager to spotlight and sexualize the text’s most sinister undercurrents. One of two Villeneuve films starring Jake Gyllenhaal at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival (the more polished but less interesting “Prisoners” being the other), “Enemy” begins like the kind of movie that a slumming Brian De Palma might take to Sundance. The opening title card tells us that “Chaos is merely order waiting to be deciphered”, a silly pearl of wisdom that needlessly complicates our understanding of the film that follows, but also anticipates the dream logic with which the story will unfold.
Jake Gyllenhaal is Adam Bell, a history professor who lives with his girlfriend (Mélanie Laurent as Mary) in an anonymous high-rise apartment in downtown Toronto, a city that cinematographer Nicolas Bolduc shoots in various shades of sickly yellow, like the whole place is suffering from a collective case of jaundice. Adam is disheveled and stricken with the same vague unhappiness that visits all ordinary men in their 30s. One evening, in the wake of a disturbing dream involving a tarantula nipping at the heels of a stripper, Adam notices something strange in the background of a movie he’s watching: himself. Or rather, his doppelgänger. There, standing behind the action as a glorified extra, Adam spots an actor who looks like his perfect double. Leaping at the opportunity to solve all of his existential crises, Adam hunts down the actor he sees on screen, eventually meeting Anthony (also Jake Gyllenhaal) in a rundown motel room outside of town. The two men quickly discover that they aren’t twins but rather exact replicas, sharing even their scars.
They do, however, live very different lives. For one thing, Anthony is married (the compulsively watchable Sarah Gadon plays his very pregnant wife, Helen), and where Adam is almost too neurotic to function, Anthony is rather uninhibited. Indeed, it doesn’t take him very long to realize hat he could conceivably seduce Adam’s girlfriend without her being hip to the fact that she’s having sex with a stranger, and the thought is immediately too appealing for him to resist. Meanwhile, Adam’s dreams become increasingly ominous, their horrific imagery exponentially growing in size – one particular shot, which will hopefully remain unspoiled in the lead-up to the film’s release, captures in a single instant the scale that “Pacific Rim” failed to achieve at any point over the course of its two hours.
But the Cronenbergian exercise in splintered personas and metamorphosing bodies is ultimately more concerned with neuroses than plot, its strange but simple narrative almost exclusively devoted to pitting male fear against male desire in a horrifying war of attrition. Likely to prove far more compelling for thirtysomething men than any other demographic, “Enemy” is first and foremost an extended allegory for male infidelity and the permanent residue of guilt that it can leave in its wake.
Gyllenhaal, here delivering both of his best performances (okay, perhaps save for “Zodiac”. And “Brokeback Mountain”. And “Prisoners”... okay, it turns out that he’s a pretty good actor), does a magnificent job of bridging the gap between the two Jakes, carving out two distinct characters without submitting either of them to caricature. And while Gyllenhaal carries the film on his shoulders, he’s provided a considerable assist by a strong supportive cast, all of whom are clearly on board with Villeneuve’s vision. The filmmaker, whatever his faults, has always displayed a strong instinct for casting – Laurent and Gadon (Cronenberg’s new muse) perfectly compliment one another, the latter adding crucial dimension to a pivotal character whose undercurrents unexpectedly prove to be the film’s most resonant.
Brimming with borderline ridiculous portent from the very beginning, “Enemy”’s wry hold is a thoroughly unexpected one, as though the film’s self-seriousness is deliberately intended to disarm the viewer into taking it less seriously. Villeneuve wants you to laugh, he wants you to drop your guard, he wants to earn your vulnerability and then prey on it, a spider building an intricate nest in some dark corner of the room you’d never think to check. To that end, “Enemy” is a deviously sneaky success – a blundering B-movie with a wicked bite, Villeneuve’s seedy wank resolves itself as a venomous and universally relatable portrait of how self-analysis can be the quickest road to self-harm. The unexamined life may not be worth living, but it sure is easier to live.
Oh, and did I mention that ending?
SCORE: 8.2 / 10