Jake Gyllenhaal and Canadian director Denis Villeneuve did some pretty good work together last fall in “Prisoners,” a violent thriller that possessed more style than substance. The same can be said for “Enemy,” a more enigmatic, less genre-driven exercise that they reportedly filmed before “Prisoners” but that suffers from similar mannerisms and emptiness.
Gyllenhaal plays Adam, a withdrawn, socially awkward college professor who, when he ventures into the world’s last video store one night, discovers upon renting a movie that there’s a bit-playing actor out there who is his exact physical double. As Adam pursues his own personal existential mystery story, “Enemy,” which is adapted from the Jose Saramago novel “The Double,” plays around with notions that have captivated artists from Nabokov to David Lynch, with similar waking-dream dread, if not their heft and depth.
Toronto plays itself — for once — in a psycho-erotic cat-and-mouse game that has been filmed in jaundiced shades of yellowing beige; the wan, lifeless palette matches the film’s overarching tone of drained, depressive enervation. Gyllenhaal ably engages in that most time-honored of actorly exercises, playing his own doppelganger, and he manages to pay homage to not just one but two Martin Scorsese movies in a clever mirror scene. Still, when he’s lecturing students on chaos theory and dictatorship and repeating historic patterns, he looks less like a man inhabiting a difficult, recessive character than someone hitting his mark and reading his lines.
For all the skill with which Villeneuve creates a forbidding, soupy-colored dystopia (whether in Adam’s imagination or downtown Toronto), “Enemy” feels like something we’ve seen before — not just from Lynch but David Cronenberg, Stanley Kubrick and any number of contemporary masters of the subconscious at its most fetishistic and unnerving. (To make the Lynchian comparison that much easier, Isabella Rossellini makes a cameo appearance as Adam’s mother.)
There’s no doubt that Villeneuve can make a movie; he’s developed a strong cinematic voice. It’s tantalizing to imagine what he could do with a really fine story. “Enemy” may best be filed under an exercise rather than fully realized effort, especially in light of a final shot that, for all its what-the-huh?! controversy, feels flimsy and unsupported by what’s gone before it.
R. At West End Cinema. Contains some strong sexual content, graphic nudity and profanity.