Denis Villeneuve had quietly built a career in his native Quebec for quite a few years before making a splash on US shores. That splash, last year’s aggressively and obsessively dark drama Prisoners, had a decently respectable box office run, in part bolstered by its cast that featured Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal, among others. Not long after the wrap of Prisoners, Villeneuve and Gyllenhaal have teamed up again for Enemy, directed by Villeneuve and written by Javier Gullon and based on Jose Saramago’s The Double (this is not to be confused with Richard Ayoade’s new film The Double, which is based off of Dostoevsky's The Double, which is not confusing at all). Gyllenhaal plays dual roles in this one, but the focus is on his portrayal of Adam, a college professor with a hefty case of malaise and a strained relationship with his girlfriend Mary (Melanie Laurent). In an attempt to cheer up his life, he rents a movie on the suggestion of a co worker, only to find one of the extras bears a strikingly uncanny resemblance to him. In looking into this odd experience, he discovers Anthony, a low rent actor with a pregnant wife named Helen (Sarah Gadon) and a penchant for some shadowy dealings on the side. As Adam delves deeper into the life of his apparent doppelganger, his life takes a turn for the dangerous, and the two men begin to intersect in surprising ways.
The first aspect of Enemy that is easily noticed is its unique color palette. Adam’s life is drab, repetitive and monotonous, with a contentious relationship to combat and an otherwise lonely existence. To bring this feeling into the visual realm, Villeneuve and cinematographer Nicolas Bolduc have bathed his world in an amber glow, managing to pervert the normally sunny and bright sector of the color spectrum to something altogether more sinister. The colorization is oppressive, and all-encompassing during the first act. It is effective as well; very few films can draw the audience in with the success of the opening scenes of Enemy using nothing more than an offbeat palette. Even as the colors of the film open up as the scope expands beyond Adam, the overall look remains stellar, evoking those great political paranoia thrillers of the 70’s while remaining notably modern in its own way.
Gyllenhaal’s performance is likely the second most notable draw of Enemy; since his days playing teenagers in films like October Sky or Donnie Darko, Gyllenhaal has grown into a force on the screen. Sporting a lustrous beard, Gyllenhaal gets to take advantage of both his nervous, paranoid energy and a more dangerous sex appeal as he flips between two sides of the same coin. This is entirely his film; the roles of Laurent and Gadon are important to the plot, but their parts are small and generally unremarkable. The same can be said for a quick cameo from Isabella Rossellini as Adam’s mother. But Gyllenhaal has the magnetism and intrigue to more than pick up the slack, and he dominates the screen for most of its run time. The visual design may be the most striking aspect of Enemy, but the performance(s) from Gyllenhaal is something that will last as well.
In it unfortunate, then, that the script is not up to the same quality as the film’s visual design and central performance. In practice, watching Enemy is a frustrating experience for those who enjoy tight narratives. It often feels like a large chunk of the film has been cut for time, which hopefully is not true considering its brisk, 90 minute run time that feels even shorter than that. Gullon’s biggest sin is that of having the events dictate the action more than the characters; while there is not an extensive backstory for anyone, it still feels like the actions of basically everyone from act two through the end credits are happening because they need to, not necessarily because this is something these characters would do of their own accord. Most puzzling about the plot is the way Adam and Anthony respond to each other’s existence, immediately turning to paranoia and spying and subterfuge when nothing seems to warrant such a response. Sure, seeing what appears to be one’s exact double in the wild must be an unnerving experience, but these characters devolve into gibbering messes at the drop of a hat. It is these choices that ensure Enemy has a credulity problem, and it is a problem the film cannot overcome before the credits roll.
Prisoners was a film that found Villeneuve channelling Zodiac-era David Fincher in a major way. There are certainly elements of Fincher’s dryer procedural side at play in Enemy as well, but here it seems his larger spiritual foundation can be found in the work of David Lynch. There is some sense of the surreal and the otherworldly in play here, with the color scheme going a long way to create a sense of unease and some recurring spider imagery providing the surreal. Similar to how he could not quite reach the heights of a David Fincher in Prisoners, he also cannot run with Lynch here. Lynch films use their mystique and sense of the surreal to the advantage of what are often otherwise impenetrable stories, but the approach is not as effective within the narrative scope of this film. The setting is mundane and the characters operatic, and the result is the unerring feeling that twenty vital minutes were left on the cutting room floor. The narrative is choppy, underserved and unfocused, and the rest of the fish rots from the head. There is intrigue here, enough intrigue to warrant a look, but not enough for any lasting appeal. As such, Enemy is best described as a disappointment.