How does one pull off a doppelganger movie without tripping over the pitfalls that plague a genre so dependent on acting chops? For every badly-wrought Vampire Diaries doppelganger, there isn’t necessarily a stable of well-defined Orphan Black clones to balance it out, a saving grace which the trope can latch on to for a reprieve from being viewed as the black sheep of movie gimmicks.
Its toughest hurdle, aside from bringing only the most capable actors on board, is figuring out what kind of approach will pay off better for any given film: should it follow the straightforward route of the “evil twin” (which can go sideways fast or, in the rarest of upshots, actually work) or should it blaze a winding trail, getting the most possible mileage out the mirror image to mess with the viewer’s mind? When the trope doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb, it’ll still be close to impossible for the double elephant in the flick not to draw attention to itself, so the trick, I think, is spinning it out into something mind-boggling, rather than serve up both sides of the coin on a platter.
What Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy gets spot-on is conjuring up, and then sustaining throughout, this dovetail between the two worlds weaved around each of the “twins” – insofar as putting the audience through the wringer of doubt before offering up a peak or two under its hood. The ending here doesn’t put the convoluted plot into some grand-scheme perspective, it’s just another hoop we’re led through in the hope there’ll be some key waiting for us after the credits start rolling, leaving our mind free to make sense of the last hour and a half.
“Chaos is order yet undeciphered.”
The Canadian-Spanish coproduction stands tall and true to its opening title card till the end, only unlocking bits of the chaos to lend us a slivery sense of the underlying order. Like the best psychological thrillers that stake their claim to the cult hall of fame – we’re talking no less than Lynchian brain twisters – Enemy would rather err on the side of eerie visuals than pull back to reveal the whole labyrinth, or settle the “vertigo,” to use Villeneuve’s wording. Hence, the timestamps are iffy, and the two look-alikes merge, and the picture only grows blurrier as the frame of their mirror goes in and out of focus.
Big picture-wise, we start off with the bushy-bearded Adam, weighed down by his repetitive teaching job in a cold, ominous and skyscraper-ridden Toronto, trudging through a workaday, lonely existence with his girlfriend coming by at nights to round out his life with another, similarly routine activity. When a coworker sparks up a conversation about movies in the teachers’ lounge, the notion of watching a flick hits Adam like a curve ball, as if the mere suggestion were on a par with joining the circus. Odd, but no cigar just yet.
Gray browns and sickly yellows define the cinematography and professor Adam himself – played by Jake Gyllenhaal (whose 2013 collab with Villeneuve gave us the harrowing and arresting Prisoners) – as do the mandatory glass reflections that the movie indulges in at length. A traveling camera peering in from outside unveils his window-fronted flat once the cover of darkness intensifies the glint of other nondescript flats across the street from his own. It’s also through this dim shroud of the witching hour that Adam watches a film where he first lays eyes on… himself.
Next thing we know, the soundtrack swells to a Hitchcockian rumble, the girlfriend leaves the picture in a huff and the blinds sidle across the length of Adam’s windows, giving way to shadows and creeping cabin fever.
“A creative act of memory…. is always colored by emotion.”
What first confounds us is how disruptive the sight of this actor doppelganger turns out to be for Adam – while the idea of bumping into one’s look-alike might be troubling to be sure, most of us wouldn’t get so lost in, nor so frazzled by, the hunt for some obscure meaning behind it. Meanwhile, Adam’s story spins out of control (and we’re circling back to the authoritarian iron fist we saw him lecturing about over and over again to his history class in the beginning), into a frenzied stop-and-go search for a face-to-face with Anthony (also played by Gyllenhaal).
Anthony’s lot is poles apart from Adam’s – a B-movie thesp with a sleek glass-centric pad of his own and a slight, pregnant wife (Sarah Gadon), he exudes self-confidence and frivolity. As the entire fabric of the city, namely its skeleton of high-rises, is brutally silhouetted on the screen from slanted angles, as if folding in on itself in step with Adam’s downward spiral, the knee-jerk assumption that this might all just be a case of twins separated at birth is soon negated by the baffling fluster of Anthony’s wife. “I think you know” she blubbers as she informs her husband about her brief but unsettling encounter with Adam earlier in the day – and at this middle point in the story, it’s already raked up enough question marks to leave us wondering too, about its very premise.
By the time Adam and Anthony meet – a line I won’t walk you across into spoiler-land – we’re swimming in uncertainty and the up-in-the-air-ness of it all is as dizzying and warped as any foray into a psychological funhouse can be.
Discordant Imagery and the Dusty Din
Steering clear of the family bond theme that injected his previous work with cut-throat tension (Prisoners and, to an even larger extent, the Oscar-nominated Incendies), here, the helmer sinks his teeth into an emotional build-up to a largely inner implosion – its fuse threaded through the film and every so often exposed by inexplicable coincidences, strange dreamscapes or absurd dialogue, to persistently hint at the impending boom it’s carrying along. In more ways than one, Enemy goes off on a tangent, away from the narrative of its source material (José Saramago’s novel “O Homem Duplicado”) andruns counter to what we’ve come to expect from Villeneuve, with neither an a-ha twist nor a violent, upending outburst in sight.
A vehicle for both its auteur and its leading man, Enemy banks on Gyllenhaal’s scowl, as much as it does on his transformative posture and his uncanny knack for playing up pent turmoil to just-below-the-surface levels. Villeneuve winds around his contorted protagonist just like his camera winds around the Marilyn Monroe towers, eventually engaging the twist-grip to collapse the real into the imaginary, the women into metaphorical tarantulas and the city’s noises into ill-auguring mental buzzing. With a minimal, but well-cast distaff presence – especially noteworthy are Sarah Gadon’s delicately bracing awareness and Isabella Rossellini’s short, open-ended turn as Adam’s mother – the film only avails itself of the women for calibration. Adam and Anthony will stand or fall by their interaction with each other, rather than their romantic entanglements, which will succumb to the obligatory casualty status.
In the end, as is naturally the case with all intricately-crafted doppelganger flicks, Enemy deals in questions, rather than forking over a skeleton key. As we catch a glimpse of the drain Adam’s been circling all the while, the simmering paranoia yielding to an inevitable, despairing yet anticlimactic face-off, Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans’ score switches to the campier sounds of The Walker Brothers. And we know we’ve been in the presence of greatness, that which is inherent in a theme as culturally ubiquitous as “the double,” but rarely reveals itself on film, when the medium is molded by rushed directorial hands. Denis Villeneuve went at it slow and steady, hitting it right on the nose.