Quietly menacing and deeply cerebral, Dennis Villeneuve’s unnerving psychological thriller Enemy gets a huge boost from a great dual performance from Jake Gyllenhaal as a man whose potential double life could be splitting the fabric of space and time around him. Maybe it’s not as science-fiction-y as that makes it sound, but there’s certainly a case that could be made for it. And like most great science fiction, psychological thrillers, and art in general, Enemy will definitely leave the audience pondering for answers long after it ends. It’s one of the most intellectually satisfying Canadian projects in quite some time.
Adam is a mild mannered university professor living in Scarborough. His life is bland, dreary, boring, and he has a hard time committing or paying attention to his girlfriend (Melanie Laurent). One day, spurred on by a co-worker who won’t stop talking in the faculty lounge, he goes to rent a film. In the film in a very brief role as an extra he sees someone who looks exactly like him. Curious and obsessed, Adam searches for Anthony, his doppelganger: a confident motorcycle riding actor from Mississauga with a penchant for tight T-shirts and a pregnant wife (Sarah Gadon) that he’s very committed to.
The suspense here comes from never being able to tell where the story is headed at any given time. All that’s known for certain once the plot is set in motion is that Adam and Anthony will eventually have to meet. Are they related or has one of them been secretly living a double life? If so, which one is real? No matter what the answer is, the results will be irreparably tragic no matter what the answers to the questions are.
The landscape in which this all plays out is also just as nightmarish. It’s a hazy, decaying version of Toronto and its surrounding suburbs. Inhospitable concrete monoliths raise up to the smoggy skies. Streetcars come appropriately lined with seemingly endless swarms of people aboard them allowing any individual to go unnoticed. Classrooms are gray and brown amphitheatres where everyone seems disinterested and the chalkboards haven’t had the excess dust washed off them in years. Condos and hotel rooms are dingy and lit regardless of how clean they are, often possessing only a single lightbulb or only natural lighting from the hazy sunshine outside. In short, it might be the most accurate depiction of Toronto as a sinister megalopolis every put before a camera. Living here, I certainly love the city, but Villeneuve has really tapped into something here. I can safely say that there aren’t any giant spiders that hover and deftly walk the city streets in one of the film’s creepiest recurring motifs, but the city doesn’t seem that far off.
Gyllenhaal is also tapping into something pretty deep and dark here, with another great performance in a Villeneuve film to stand beside their work together on the far glossier and a lot more standardized American thriller Prisoners (although this one was made first). As Adam, he’s sympathetic, a man to root for as he tries to pull his life together. He’s far from irredeemable, just obsessed and unsure of himself. As Anthony, he still possesses traits one wishes Adam had, but he’s even more doubtful and distrustful of the world around him. That could be because Anthony has more to lose in his life than Adam does, so if they are the same person, who should win control over the one body that houses two souls: the nice guy with nothing or the arrogant man with everything?
Such is the nature of Villeneuve’s very literary direction. Working from a screenplay written by Javier Gullon and adapted from a Jose Saramago novel, Villeneuve gives his film a looseness that allows for character moments and asides to be played out and still have them factor into the story perfectly. He knows that any rational attempt at explaining what happens in the film will only lead to logical viewers having more nagging questions than answers. By creating almost a fugue state for the viewer and the characters to slip into, Villeneuve allows for more satisfying philosophical questions to be raised in a film that asks what it means to be a person living in a largely faceless society that seems to value functionality over progress. It also gets quite playful with its own concept, as Villeneuve imbues the film with a great sense of humour. For a heady horror movie with big themes, at least it isn’t self-serious or dour at every turn.
It won’t be for everyone, especially anyone who has to have every moment explained to them in great detail. The film’s final shot will also potentially turn off those who were so invested in the film from the start. But it’s there to make sure the rest of the film is pondered over and puzzled over even in the absence of easy answers. It’s designed to be the final punch in the gut that forces every previous question that the viewer might have asked to be considered even more strenuously. It’s a movie that actually wants its audience to think, and it’s wonderful that such a film isn’t presumptuous enough to think it knows all of the exact right answers.