Sunday, July 20, 2014
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Melanie Laurent, Isabellla Rossellini, Sarah Gadon
Running Time: 90 min.
★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)
“Chaos is merely order yet to be deciphered.”
It's often said that everyone has a double. In the psychological thriller, Enemy, that idea is pushed to the breaking point with a set-up that dares to go further than just merely acknowledging the occurrence. It's interested in how someone would react and what they'd do if they ever discovered it. At least that's the literal interpretation of the film, and the one I prefer to go with since it's the only aspect of the story that can be proven for sure while watching. And then it works on a whole other level, where you can start to peel away layers on top of layers of information and clues that suggest it's an allegory about identity and how we battle ourselves in both our lives and relationships. Aside from the tense mood and claustrophobic atmosphere created by Prisoners director Denis Villeneuve, the big takeaway is Jake Gyllenhaal's brilliant performance in a dual, complex role that showcases some of his best acting work.
A premise like this is difficult because the film's entire success can hinge on an explanation, and if one isn't given or it's unsatisfactory in the context of what's come before, the whole thing can collapse under the weight of its own ambition. Villeneuve scoots around this nicely, realizing no explanation could possibly suffice. Those who want answers and want them yesterday will only be satisfied if they adjust expectations to appreciate the unique experience on the level it's delivered.
Gylenhaal plays Adam Bell, a kind of sloppy, depressed college history professor who gives lectures talking about how "History repeats itself twice. The first time is a tragedy, the second time is a farce.” He's about to find that out first-hand when a colleague recommends he rent a movie called, There's a Will There's a Way from the local video store. While watching Adam notices an actor in a bit role who looks exactly like him. Both equally troubled and fascinated by the discovery, he does some internet research to discover the man's name is Anthony Claire (acting under his stage name Daniel St. Claire). Despite his growing obsession with this newfound doppelganger concerning his girlfriend Mary (Melanie Laurent), Adam begins stalking him, eventually catching Anthony's attention and that of his pregnant wife, Helen (Sarah Gadon). Their two worlds are about to collide, as both physically identical but fundamentally different men attempt to get to the truth of what's happening.
Prior to his discovery of Anthony, Adam's existence wouldn't be mistaken for anything other than dark and depressing. In fact, our introduction to him in both his apartment and classroom becomes almost uncomfortable to watch in how far the film goes in establishing a man who has completely given up on life, recalling the similarly depressing set-up to John Frankenheimer's 1966 cult classic Seconds. In that film an unfulfilled man trading in his life and physical appearance for an identity upgrade, only to later discover the decision carries dire consequences. Whether that's happening here is a more loaded question, but the protagonist definitely has a "second" whose life he envies, and uncovering his existence is only causing him more emotional pain. He even seems to be putting himself to sleep during his own lectures, shuffling out of the building with his head down when he's through. His apartment is so dimly lit and desolate it's almost surreal.
The Toronto we're used to seeing depicted in movies (too often as merely a cleaner stand-in for NYC) is boldly reimagined by cinematographer Nicolas Bolduc as a cold, bleak dystopia with danger lurking along the edges in the form of intimidatingly towering skyscrapers and giant insects. Yet, this isn't a sci-fi or horror movie, at least in the traditional sense. It's more of an existential nightmare made all the more frightening because Villeneuve plays everything completely straight, treating the bizarre situation as if it were real without wavering once. Some may say Adam's reaction to discovering his own double is too over-the-top. But is it really? He seems to go through the investigative steps anyone else would looking for answers, only in a slightly more panicked state. It's hard to believe anyone wouldn't be freaked out over it, but for him it only magnifies all his existing fears and insecurities.
Despite Anthony only being a bit actor he still seems ten worlds away from Adam, as the happier, more confident of the two. But that doesn't mean he's without his own personal demons, struggling mightily to make his marriage work, with apparently little success. Without revealing whether the two eventually meet, the mind of the viewer still races to solve the mystery of how they're physically identical. Are they siblings, the same person, or is this whole thing something else? My biggest concern was the script suddenly turning supernatural, a betrayal that thankfully doesn't occur. It's never presented as anything other than what it actually is right until the end. And about halfway through the suspense is such that you're not sure you even want to know since it could spoil the fun.
Gyllenhaal's real feat isn't that he's playing two characters that look identical yet act wildly different, but that there's never any confusion as to who's on screen at the moment. And he accomplishes this all through body language and mannerisms, which physically make Adam appear smaller in stature to his counterpart, reflective of his depressed state of mind. Appropriately, he plays Anthony much bigger and more charismatically, but without stretching it so far that it feels like a parody. If a half-year Oscars were held right now, he'd be nominated.
The real victims are the women shell-shocked by a development that defies human explanation. Both are a bigger part of the puzzle than it first seems, with Sarah Gadon making a memorable impression as Anthony's ignored and very pregnant spouse, Helen, who comes face-to-face with a man who looks just like her husband, while possessing none of his qualities (which could be a good thing). That the downtrodden Adam has a girlfriend, much less one played by Melanie Laurent, is probably the most surprising thing about him. But even she seems to have one foot out the door, given how distracted he's been. These aren't sub-plots. The movie is as much about these two relationships than the doppelganger plot, if not more so. You could even argue they're one in the same, transforming this into an erotic, psychosexual thriller of sorts.
When things get really weird there's still this feeling that what we're watching is strangely plausible within the universe Villeneuve loosely adapted from Nobel Prize winner Jose Saramago's novel, The Double. It's true even right up until the terrifying final scene set to the Walker Brothers' "After The Lights Go Out", which is likely be deconstructed and extrapolated for symbolic meaning whenever discussion of the film comes up. That it comes from the same man who brought us last year's unexpectedly gripping Prisoners (also starring Gyllenhaal, but shot after this) makes sense when considering this could be described as a more challenging low budget, indie version of that, doing less plot-wise to accomplish more, leaning more on mood than mystery to tell its story. But it's a mind-blower, deliberately paced and excruciatingly suspenseful, at times combining elements of Hitchcock, Fincher and Cronenberg. It should really come with a warning: Multiple viewings required.