By Rodrigo Perez | The Playlist September 8, 2013 at 7:00PM
At the risk of blatantly repeating ourselves, Jake Gyllenhaal and director Denis Villeneuve are on the cusp of a banner 2013 that is about to hit its crest. Their first-unveiled collaboration, the harrowing, Fincher-with-more-emotional-resonance crime thriller “Prisoners” has already bruised audiences in Telluride and Toronto (read our review here). But if “Prisoners” is the grimmest studio film you’ve seen since “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo,” then “Enemy”—chronologically their first collaboration—is the equally dark but more experimental and arty cousin. And a terrifically haunting one at that.
Imagine the Paul Thomas Anderson of “There Will Be Blood” making a Brian De Palma movie, or Claire Denis directing Christopher Nolan’s “Memento.” While those superlatives do give you a taste of the striking, sensual disposition simmering in the French-Canadian filmmaker’s engrossing Kafka-eque mindfuck cum provocative psychological thriller, it actually does a disservice to Villeneuve’s superb craft and darkened vision that truly has coalesced into something extraordinary this year.
“Chaos is merely order waiting to be deciphered,” the opening titles menacingly state before the movie emerges from black and then burrows down into the dark subconscious. A faithful yet distinctive adaptation of José Saramago's "The Double," Villeneuve’s second festival drama stars Jake Gyllenhaal in a bewitching dual role as an increasingly paranoid teacher who believes he's found his exact doppelganger. The actor stars as Adam Bell, a disheveled and sullen university lecturer who is living in isolated, self-loathing despair. In a threadbare and inadequately lit Toronto apartment, Adam grades papers and only stops to have animalistic sex with the comely girlfriend (Mélanie Laurent) whom he otherwise seems disinterested in. A random conversation with a colleague leads Adam to rent a recommended movie and within, on the edges of the frames, in a bit part, he sees himself. Or at least what appears to be his perfect twin. Shocked and disturbed, Adam begins to frantically investigate who this lookalike might be, and through online searches discovers the identical man to be Anthony Clair (Gyllenhaal again), a struggling actor living in the badlands of Mississauga (a dispiriting ghetto suburb on the outskirts of Toronto). Curious, fearful and strangely excited, Adam begins to shadow Anthony from afar, and even comes in contact with his doppelganger's pregnant, estranged wife (a standout Sarah Gadon) while searching for clues. When Adam reaches out to his mother (Isabella Rossellini) with this disconcerting revelation, in hopes that she may have some light to shed or a family secret to finally unveil, she proves to be of little help.
Increasingly frayed and troubled by this discovery, Adam eventually attempts to engage Anthony and when they finally meet face to face, the two men—already suffering from the pains of their ailing relationships—become bizarrely connected and dangerously conjoined. Are they lost twins? Each other’s somehow-connected other half? As the picture digs deeper into the pair's uneasy mental turmoil, it hypnotically delves into the unconscious of the two men and how their sexual desires are more inexorably linked than they could ever imagine.
Thick with weighty themes, disquieting portent and anxious tension, Villeneuve—the Foreign Language Academy-Award nominated director of “Incendies”—crafts a gripping slow burn portrait of the male id/ego, our self-destructive tendencies and how they control us. Deeply in sync with his director’s tenebrous dream, Gyllenhaal obviously carries the entire film on his shoulders, and he delivers with a smoldering internalized performance of torment that is easily his finest work. The conflicted men are distinct, but it’s the nuanced, strange similarities between them and their own personal agonies that make for a remarkably committed turn by the young actor.
With apologies to David Cronenberg, never has Toronto looked so grand and yet so ill and claustrophobic. Transforming the city into an existential wasteland (clearly influenced by the depressing fringes of Mississauga), cinematographer Nicolas Bolduc’s sickly muted palette envelopes the movie in a distressing, cigarette-stain yellow (the film also boasts some of the most genuinely uncomfortable aerial cityscape shots seen in some time). Musically, the exciting on-the-rise composer duo of Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans (“Martha Marcy May Marlene,” “Simon Killer") bring an atonal A-game of discordant cellos and oblique half notes that would make Jonny Greenwood proud, and keeps the movie tilted on its discomfiting axis.
Part enigmatic existentialist thriller, part psychosexual drama, “Enemy,” like Villeneuve’s earlier festival film, is exceptionally dark, harrowing, and especially consuming. Those that have seen “Prisoners” can attest to the methodical, hyper-attuned clinician Villeneuve has become in his approach to genre, and “Enemy” has the same quivering pitch of masterful meticulousness. Not only is “Enemy” once again first-rate filmmaking, it’s profoundly unnerving. A challenging, sometimes abstract piece of work, “Enemy” doesn’t reveal itself easily, but its coiling ouroboros quality is fascinating and spellbindingly disturbing. A riveting examination of intimacy (and the lack thereof), identity, duality and the nether regions of our unconscious desires, “Enemy” is a transfixing grand slam that certifies Villeneuve as the real deal and one of the most exciting new voices in cinema today. [A]