Another dark tale of dour characters stuck in deep behavioral ruts, Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy is a slick, scary companion piece to last year’s overwrought Prisoners, equally grim but far more streamlined. Recounting one man’s life-shattering confrontation with his doppelganger, it tackles many of the same issues as that previous film, tracing strained patterns of performance which force characters to repeat the same ingrained behaviors. In Prisoners that concept was expressed through various violent legacies in a dying Rust Belt town, but in Enemy it’s the specter of futile masculine aggression lurking within a modern domestic setting.
This idea is conveyed through two mirrored relationships, each anchored by a very different performance by Jake Gyllenhaal. The first of these involves Adam Bell, a sad-sack history professor who spends his days spouting expository lessons, charting the film’s thematic underpinnings across a cluttered chalkboard. At night he broods, drinks, and has disinterested sex with his girlfriend, Mary (Mélanie Laurent), the two of them inhabiting the same relative space while barely interacting. Adam’s sense of impending dread is validated when he watches a low-budget local movie, featuring a brief appearance by bit-part actor Anthony Clair, who turns out to be Adam’s exact physical double. He’s also his apparent opposite, happily married with a pregnant wife (Sarah Gadon), though hints of sinister secrets lurking beneath this sunny façade suggest two men compelled by similar irrepressible drives.
Prisoners used snakes to represent the squirmy darkness of its characters’ subconsciouses; Enemy uses spiders, and the facile nature of these stock horror images demonstrates how basic Villenveuve’s approach to the thriller remains. So while the film is stylish and well photographed, it often feels only half-developed. Adam and Anthony’s status as reflections of one another, for example, seems to cry out for some visual differentiation between their opposing worlds, but both are drenched in the same sickly yellow glare, at times reminiscent of Lars von Trier’s The Element of Crime. Anthony gets a bit more daylight in his scenes, while Adam spends his time drenched in darkness, but there’s a surprisingly small amount of imagination devoted to visually distinguishing characters who seem otherwise designed to counterbalance one another.
The film is also stuck in the same humorless, existential torpor that made Prisoners such a slog, and gets further weighed down by the soundtrack’s omnipresent horror-movie strings. There are bright moments where that darkness pays dividends, like a spellbinding early sequence that may or may not be a dream, but the gloomy atmosphere has a generally stultifying effect which undercuts any real build-up. By contrast, the 2002 José Saramago novel on which Enemy is based is full of different modes, progressing from uneasy puzzlement to outright horror as this story of two identical men grows more ominous, conveying the debilitating burden of anxiety through an incremental shift in tone.
Villeneuve and screenwriter Javier Gullón have different aims, and it’s at least refreshing to see an adaptation with such a fresh, flexible spin on its source material. Gyllenhaal embodies the two roles with real presence, establishing Adam’s sniveling wimp and Anthony’s striding jerk as two believably discrete sides of the same coin. There’s also a nice handling of the movie’s central mystery, with several key questions allowed to remain enticingly oblique, bits of mystifying menace that give the story added impact. In some sense, Enemy functions as a deft parable about the perils of modern masculinity, with two hapless men trapped in the biological cycles that make them both aggressors and victims in their own lives. This idea is established without defending their actions, communicating the inherent peril of intimate relationships within a beguiling thriller framework, which combined with the evocative atmospherics assure this as Villeneuve’s best effort in some time, despite an abundance of minor issues.