Saturday, March 22, 2014

Review: "Enemy"

Director: Denis Villeneuve
Runtime: 90 minutes

"Chaos is order undeciphered," reads the apt opening title card of Denis Villeneuve's Enemy, a film which either has quite a bit of order to decipher, or simply a small amount of order that's been reconfigured beyond recognition. The second, and artier, of the director's collaborations with actor Jake Gyllenhaal, Enemy escalates slowly, before finishing with a nightmarish bang. With strains of Kubrick, Lynch, and Hitchcock in its DNA, Villeneuve's latest finds the director focusing on atmosphere over narrative details, to positive and negative effect.

After an unsettling prologue, Enemy turns its focus to the humdrum life of college professor Adam Bell (Jake Gyllenhaal). A neurotic shut in, Adam's life changes when he notices an extra in a movie he's watching who looks just like him. Rather than shrug off the incident, Adam lets his neuroses get the best of him, and he sets off to investigate. The other man is Anthony Saint Claire (Gyllenhaal as well), a haughty actor and motorcycle enthusiast. Adam lives in bland, cluttered apartment and has a girlfriend (Melanie Laurent), while Anthony is married to Helen (Sarah Gadon), who is six months pregnant. 

As the title suggests, the eventual meeting of the Gyllenhaals doesn't exactly bond the pair. Adam freaks out, and wishes he'd never pursued Anthony to begin with. Anthony, meanwhile, is tempted to toy with Adam's life. Their similar, yet oh so different, paths in life start to cross, and then they fold onto each other, before merging in thoroughly unsettling ways.

Rather than constantly play Gyllenhaal off of himself, Javier Gullon's adaptation of Jose Saramago's "The Double" is more interested in how the two men act as individuals. The cocky Anthony is keen to use Adam's life as another role to play, while Adam struggles to cope with the idea once he's actually confronted with it. Adam's mother (Isabella Rosselini) tells him that he's her only son, which takes out the only logical reason for Anthony's existence. There's also the matter of Adam's dreams, which may or may not be a sign of a deeper connection between man and doppelgänger (and vice versa). 

Yet compared to other media involving similar concepts, Enemy focuses less on the mystery of how than the ramifications of the collision of two lives that are only separated by a few threads. Twists aren't the driving force of Enemy's limited narrative. Instead, it's the gradual (at times too gradual) release of details that glues the story together. Rather than build to a big revelation, Enemy ends in a way that dares the viewer to go and figure it all out on their own (though I suspect certain details have meanings that will remain elusive).

It's all a marvelous showcase for Gyllenhaal and Villeneuve, even as Gullon's adaptation leaves them to compensate for the script's emptiness. Gyllenhaal creates clear distinctions between Adam and Anthony, most noticeably in posture. Though the film's decision to keep the two men apart pays off, a few more interactions between the pair would have likely only deepened the sense of danger that the aesthetics work so hard to create. Of the rest of the cast, only Sarah Gadon makes an impression as Anthony's vaguely paranoid wife. Meanwhile, Villeneuve and cinematographer Nicolas Bolduc shoot the Toronto settings with a sickly, yellowish haze that lends even the most mundane skyscrapers a foreboding presence. Meanwhile, composing duo Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans turn up the atmosphere with their eerie, off-kilter score.

The big factor holding Enemy back from fully hitting its mark as a nightmarish psycho-drama is that it doesn't go far enough with its central mystery. There's quite a bit hinted at that could have been explored without 'solving' the case. Despite the 90 minute run time, the first act's glacial pacing is also partly to blame. It's long on atmosphere and short on character ground work. Despite some nice visual characterization and elegant editing, Enemy's initial foundation isn't as solid as the film thinks.

Shortcomings noted, though, it's refreshing to see a psychological drama/thriller that isn't afraid to leave most of the hard work to the audience. Villeneuve and his cast's commitment to the brazenly head-scratching material is admirable, and ensures that Enemy never sinks under the weight of its own weirdness. Spiders play a significant (albeit puzzling) role in Enemy's puzzle, which couldn't be more appropriate. Enemy lures you in with hints of danger, but only shows you enough to draw you deeper and deeper into its web. By the time you think you have an idea of where it's going, you're hit with the blood-chilling realization that it's already too late. 

Grade: B/B+

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