The Toronto skyline appears poisoned in the opening shots of Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy, tainted by a jaundiced hue that folds over each building and street like a venomous cloud. As the camera slow glides through the air and a thunderous, drum-infused score lays down enough bass to wake the dead, we get the distinct feeling that a lethal force has bitten the world at large, and the diagnosis doesn’t look good.
It’s later clear that this vision of society reflects the toxic point of view of Adam (Jake Gyllenhaal), a reclusive college professor whose life is turned upside down when he discovers his double, a semi-successful actor named Anthony (Gyllenhaal again) also living in town. Curiosity and happenstance cause their fates to intertwine, but something more sinister emerges from their awareness of each other. Both men’s motivations quickly become obscured by the extreme sense of dread that permeates every frame.
Much of Enemy grapples with the psychological consequences of Adam and Anthony’s cat-and-mouse game. Many questions arise as to why their interconnectedness creates such a profoundly disturbing ripple. What’s consistent is Villeneuve’s striking environment of metal and glass, highlighting a network of wires running through the city like a circuit board that most people would ignore. Adam notices neither them nor the constricting spaces that surround him daily. But they are key to understanding the way his past trauma informs the film’s aesthetics.
With only a torn picture of a woman for a reference point, the audience struggles to fill in the context of Adam’s deep malaise. As a result, Enemy is consistently baffling, favoring surrealism and mood over a traditional plot. The vibe of each “normal” location is tainted by how claustrophobic it feels. Adam’s classroom might seem expansive at first, but the camera often pushes him up against the chalkboard as he lectures about philosophy. Even more disturbing is his cave of an apartment, made up entirely of dark corners. It’s only when his attractive girlfriend, Mary (Mélanie Laurent), shows up does it seem like any life returns to the space.
Villeneuve and cinematographer Nicolas Bolduc construct each frame as if it were one piece of an evolving puzzle. Hints about Adam’s guilt and Anthony’s promiscuity filter through the dialogue sequences mostly consisting of non-sequiturs, but it’s the motifs found in the imagery itself that offer the best clues to their relationship. During the scene when Adam first sees Anthony’s face in a film that he’s rented, the bright light of the laptop screen reflects in the orb of his eye. Here, we see the film’s themes of duality represented in a visually breathtaking way.
Enemy—which opens Friday, March 28—ultimately wrestles with our need to control every facet of life, from our identity to our unspoken animalistic desires. You can see these conflicts in both Adam’s ghostly relationship with Mary and Anthony’s stricken marriage to Helen (Sarah Gadon), whose pregnancy provides the film with its most harrowing cliff note. Even more apparent is the way the camera often twists and turns, creating imagery that feels devoid of gravity.
Villeneuve’s previous thriller, Prisoners, was a bombastic and bloated genre piece posing as awards-season fodder. Thankfully, Enemy is lean and mean, a meticulous display of film craft that explores textural and audible patterns within a framework that’s entirely singular. Adam and Anthony are caught in a multi-level web of their own making, and the film is less interested in releasing them from its grasp than it is in poking each character relentlessly to see which one screams first.