Style overwhelms content in psychological thriller ‘Enemy’
Doppelganger stories are perversely fascinating, the idea that each of us has an exact double somewhere living out a completely different, parallel life. There’s a lot of potential for a compelling story in this premise, but it all depends on how it’s handled. Sadly, the handling of the Canadian mystery thriller, Enemy, is its undoing. This doppelganger plot requires subtlety and kid gloves, but director Denis Villeneuve prefers to strap on a catcher’s mitt and bludgeon it into submission.
It’s not like French Canadian Villeneuve can’t make movies. His Incendies, was a searing look at the legacy of violence and the courage of forgiveness in the Middle East. But he seems completely flummoxed by the demands of a psychological thriller. The story of an average guy who becomes obsessed with the double he discovers living nearby in the same city requires a certain amount of suggestive eeriness to draw the viewer in, but Villeneuve’s filmmaking style is way over the top, from the first perplexing, slightly disgusting opening scene, to the giant metaphor (so heavy-handed, it’s literally laughable) that concludes the film.
Scripted by Javier Gullón, from the novel by José Saramago, the story begins with rumpled Toronto university prof Adam Bell (Jake Gyllenhaal). He lectures his students that “dictators maintain control by squelching individuality,” a pattern, he says, that repeats all through history, and then we see the pattern of his life repeating—delivering the same lecture every day, riding home on the train to his dingy flat, having active, but not terribly engaged sex with his blonde girlfriend (Melanie Laurent), who pops in every evening for the purpose, but never stays the night.
When a colleague recommends he watch an inane comedy from the DVD store, Adam spots an extra in one scene who looks just like him—down to the same bad haircut and unkempt beard. Adam is not the most stable guy to begin with (he spends most of his time brooding, face in his hands), but this sends him into a complete tizzy. He starts stalking the bit player named Anthony (also played by Gyllenhaal), who lives across town with his pregnant wife (Sarah Gadon), phoning his apartment and intercepting his mail. Pretty soon, the two men are locked in a perverse, obsessive folie à deux.
It turns out to be a fairly slight story; it might have made an effective half-hour episode of Twilight Zone back in the day. But in attempting to stretch it out to feature length, Villeneuve relies on overly amped-up style—apprehensive music, jump cuts, extreme, unsettling close-ups—to make up for the lack of material. He’s fond of spiders, especially the gigantic Louise Bourgeoise sculpture hovering over the skyline in one shot. (Significantly titled “Maman,” or “mother,” although you have to see the film to know why.)
Unfortunately, all these gimmicks overwhelm what little plot there is. Every frame throbs with sinister portent and bass-heavy electronic music that oozes into the subconscious. The space-age Toronto skyline is photographed through a noxious yellow scrim, to give the film a dystopian sci-fi look that has nothing to do with the story. Villeneuve’s principal color scheme is black and the oily yellow of naked light bulbs. His interiors are so underlit, you can never see what’s going on, and overall, he favors the dark, sludgy visuals of a vintage David Lynch movie—but without the payoff.
Which is not to say there’s no point to the film. There is, or at least a kind of, resolution to the story that explains a few things, but it’s so overwhelmed by foreboding before the fact, it’s hardly worth the effort. The reason a classic psychological thriller like The Sixth Sense works so well is that filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan took such care to ground the story in ordinary-seeming, recognizable real life. Everything about the plot and characters seemed so normal, so that when the Big Reveal came at the end—and it was a corker, one of the ultimate “aha!” moments in the history of movies—the audience was simply floored.
Villeneuve tries to goad the viewer into believing he’s making some sort of profound, supernatural horror movie, so when the Big Reveal comes, its disappointingly mundane. This isn’t an “aha!” moment; it’s more like an “oh, please.”
★ ★ (out of four)
With Jake Gyllenhaal, Melanie Laurent, and Sarah Gadon. Written by Javier Gullón. From the novel by José Saramago. Directed by Denis Villeneuve. An A24 release. Rated R. 90 minutes.