Denis Villeneuve convinces Jake Gyllenhaal to undertake a journey into the subconscious with “Enemy,” a simultaneously unsettling and exasperating work of speculative fiction different enough in subject, pacing and tone from everything else out there that it should succeed in finding an audience by virtue of sheer oddity alone. Gyllenhaal plays a mild-mannered history prof shocked to discover his doppelganger — that’s about the only thing that can be said with certainty about this loose adaptation of Jose Saramago’s “The Double,” which A24 scooped up in Toronto. To its advantage, “Enemy” is mysterious enough that many viewers will insist on seeing it twice.
For its double-duty leading man (who subsequently reteamed with Villeneuve on “Prisoners”), this murky mind-bender is the closest Gyllenhaal has come to tackling another “Donnie Darko,” only this time, not even the director seems to know what it all means. Where others make cutty, hyper-kinetic features, Villeneuve ratchets up the tension at roughly the speed ice caps melt, using that extra time to force audiences’ attention into uneasy corners of the psyche.
With “Enemy,” he plunges inward, exploring a mix of inarticulable anxieties and unsettling dream imagery, opening with an elite, invite-only sex club where expressionless men in suits watch naked ladies do erotic things with live tarantulas onstage. Meanwhile, a pregnant woman (Sarah Gadon) waits at home. Who is she? And who, for that matter, is Gyllenhaal in this equation? The next time we see him, the actor is leading a stuffy existence, lecturing on methods of control to a glazed-looking college class. So the man is Adam Bell, a dull moth of a college professor — or so audiences are led to believe, as the pic privileges this character.
One night, when he probably ought to be making love to his gorgeous and conspicuously un-pregnant g.f. (Melanie Laurent), Adam instead chooses to rent a video, spotting a bit player in the background who looks uncannily similar to himself (minus the beard). After a bit of snooping, he identifies the actor as Daniel Saint Claire (real name Anthony), a nobody with three tiny roles to his credit. With seemingly little else in his life to occupy him, Adam starts to investigate Anthony, using the fact that the two men look and sound exactly alike (right down to a distinguishing chest scar) to infiltrate the stranger’s private affairs.
But the power shifts when Daniel — as sexually aggressive as Adam is detached — demands a romantic weekend with his double’s mistress. Curiosity can be a dangerous thing, as Adam begins to uncover what appears to be another side of himself, or so a disconcerting visit to his mother (Isabella Rossellini) would suggest. Though impressively choreographed and undoubtedly the most dramatic moments in this low-key mood study, the interactions between the two Jakes distract from what could be real in the stale, strangely antiseptic world of the film, as if Adam’s subconscious had assumed an identity of its own — or vice versa. If Adam is literal and logical, then his double is just the opposite: artistic, impulsive and, quite possibly, incorrigible.
The way Villeneuve has constructed this puzzle, audiences are drawn in by the rich, sinister vibe and led to expect a thriller. Though the director demonstrates an impressive mastery of tone as it pertains to both the sound design and visuals, the pace defies contempo comfort levels, unfolding like a slow-motion, spied-through-amber episode of “The Twilight Zone,” the shock ending all the more startling given the gradual build-up it receives. In a daring move, Villeneuve radically departs from both the source material (which contains no trace of spiders, for example) and Javier Gullon’s script, complicating the issue of whose subconscious the film is exploring exactly by incorporating improvisatory breakthroughs with Gyllenhaal into the fabric of the film.
Ultimately, the enigmatic surface conflict — in which a man must contend with his own carbon copy as rival — proves to be the film’s own worst enemy, for its dark, David Lynchian allure proves almost too compelling, obscuring the material’s deeper themes. Delve further, and a fresh set of existential questions arises: How does a man reconcile two lovers in his own head? Can he really maintain two separate lives without losing track of reality? What happens when his pregnant wife begins to suspect? And what fresh crimes must he commit in order to come home?