If the enemy of my enemy is my friend then what do we make of Enemy? When your enemy is yourself, does that mean you’re your own worst enemy and best friend? Thankfully for a film made of such origami-esque folds in logic as Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy, it’s never as convoluted as one might expect. In fact, the efficiently put together puzzle box – it’s 90-minute runtime is sweet relief compared to Prisoners’ 150 – is actually rather easy to follow, with its more mind-bending aspects better left dangling as ominous, lingering threads of unease and macabre menace. If you don’t fall under the quiet spell of this José Saramago adaptation then its occasional moments of excessive outré imagery will likely fall on deaf ears, but I found it captivating.
Perhaps the film is an allegory for Villeneuve’s own creative to-and-fro between the more mainstream-oriented worlds of Incendies and Prisoners and that of his more experimental artistic endeavors such as Polytechnique and his wonderfully grotesque short Next Floor. As duel Jake Gyllenhaals traverse around a murky Toronto – looking as it does as if it has been slathered with amber and frozen in a not-too-distant and not-quite-real time and space – fighting a soft-spoken battle for supremacy, its mysteries only deepen and its director’s whims get more refined. Villeneuve, working from a screenplay by Javier Gullón, has never felt this unobscured and singular in his vision. All of the elements work in perfect harmony, which is something I certainly didn’t think about PolyTechnique or Prisoners (the latter of which I really liked; the former not so much), which had elements that stuck out like sore thumbs amidst the world he had created. The dreaminess that Enemy revels in is perfectly in sync with the aforementioned darkened honey hues of cinematographer Nicolas Bolduc (nicely described as “uretic” by Guy Lodge), the austere production design of Patrice Vermette that appears as if it could unfold at any moment into a parallel dimension, and the blunt, discomforting score of Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans.
Much like David Lynch by way of David Cronenberg (Dead Ringers is an obvious reference point, but I also found the disconnected urban metropolitan menace of Mulholland Drive and Crash a very palpable influence), whether its mysteries make all that sense – intentionally or otherwise – is hardly the point. Enemy feels quite distinctly as a mood piece, a ring of swirling colours and emotions that seems more intent on leaving a mental mark or scar on the viewer than anything resembling a sense of narrative fulfillment.
A lot of the lasting effect that Enemy holds over viewers – or, those viewers who are willing to fall under its spell – surely has to do with Jake Gyllenhaal. Maybe it was from having jumped straight from Villeneuve’s Prisoners into Enemy, but he’s able to hit the right notes immediately. The differences and eventual blurring of Adam and Anthony feel authentic and not like mere actorly technique. He finds a headspace for the performance that is alluring in its danger and exciting in its contrasts. As an audience cypher he’s an admittedly handsome (the film finds plenty of ways to get him out of his shirt) and relatable one whether it’s as the downtrodden history teacher or the energetic actor with a secret. One can only hope he’s done with chasing big Hollywood franchise bucks since his work is clearly at its strongest when wading in far more artistically inclined fare.
One likely could call into the question the film’s sexual politics when it comes to the two Jakes, Adam and Anthony, playing mindgames with their respective partners, but therein lies part of Enemy’s attraction. Despite the fact that the world these characters inhabit is far from lifelike, the characters react in ways that feel organic and true. The initial thrill, the eventual worry, the god-like playing with fire. I suspect the previously mentioned Cronenberg and Lynch would find its themes of identity, behavior, and what happens when we discover we’re perhaps not our only selves in this world, entirely thrilling. I know I did. I saw it two weeks back and it still creeps and crawls around my mind like a giant daddy longlegs hovering over a city as its spindly legs maneuver about. It’s a haunting film, but not because of any ghosts or possessions. Rather, it haunts because of the very real consequences it portrays from something so unnatural and unexpected.
Enemy is out now in American cinemas through A24.