Denis Villeneuve had a big 2013, releasing not one, but two films at the Toronto International Film Festival. One of them was Prisoners, which I have nothing to say about since I didn’t see it. That said, I can only hope that it was better than his other offering, the half-baked psychological drama Enemy, whose major contribution to doppelganger fiction appears to be, “Man, wouldn’t it be fucked up if one twin took over the other twin’s life? Or does he?! Whoa!”
Jake Gyllenhaal pulls double duty as both Adam Bell, meek wimpy history teacher, and Anthony Claire, prickish glorified extra. The former discovers the existence of the latter while watching a movie on his laptop and, in an instant of disbelief and astonishment, proceeds to unravel the very fabric of both their existences because someone uncannily looks like him. I realize that that sounds glib, but Javier Gullón’s script doesn’t give us a whole lot of meat to chew on with regard to character motivations. In a massive ouroboric misstep, the two central characters exist only as the other’s missing half; the characterizations they get limit themselves to “well, he’s not like that other guy.” It’s hinted at that the two Jakes are either clones, brothers, or even the same man, but the film itself is less interested in exploring any of those options (and their ramifications on the lives of the protags) than it is in riddling its narrative thread in knots. The opening intertitle that reads “chaos is order yet undeciphered” then becomes not a platitude, but a taunt.
Despite this fatal flaw in the screenplay, this isn’t a case where a film is bad because it’s poorly assembled. The largely-capable cast does their best with the broad-stroke characters they’re given. Both Gyllenhaal and Sarah Gadon cook in their scenes together, while Mélanie Laurent and Isabella Rossellini are reliably good, though sorely underused. On the technical side, Villeneuve’s craft is as solid as ever. He has a gift for making his everyday locales feel alien and foreboding solely by movie his camera just so. Your mileage may vary on Nicolas Bolduc’s piss-yellow cinematography, which either magnifies the sense that Enemy‘s Toronto is a smoggy brutalist wasteland or makes you wish that the film didn’t literalize its queasiness so much.
Maybe I reacted to the film this way because I thought I was going to get a Brian De Palma-esque thriller, or maybe a philosophical Jorge Luis Borges-type butterfly-effect head-scratcher. Ultimately, Enemy a limp, warmed-over Lynchian doppelganger nightmare with too few positives to outweigh the negatives. While it angles for a bit of Possession‘s turf (doubling, relationships in crisis, patterns, politics, neurosis), it does so without nailing the visceral, apocalyptic charge of same. Enemy‘s failure at shouldering its emotional load can traced back to its bungled treatment of characters and of the city-as-soul-prison. It’s as if instead of featuring a progressive breakdown of reality and self, Enemy chooses to play coy with portentous symbolism, and only ends up being disorienting at the surface instead of disconcerting at its core.
Enemy is playing in select theatres.
Directed by Denis Villeneuve; written by Javier Gullón; starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Sarah Gadon, Mélanie Laurent, and Isabella Rossellini; 90 minutes.