Director Denis Villeneuve gave Jake Gyllenhaal one of his best roles yet in last year's Prisoners. Their new collaboration, Enemy (which was actually shot before Prisoners), retains the atmosphere and ambiguity of that thriller, but forgets to have a plot.
An adaptation of Nobel Prize-winner José Saramago's 2002 novel The Double—not to be confused with Dostoyevsky's novella of the same name, which has also been adapted into a film that comes to the U.S. later this year—Enemy stars Gyllenhaal as a Toronto history professor so anhedonic that he can't even appreciate regularly hooking up with Mélanie Laurent on a regular basis.
In a film recommended to him by a colleague, he discovers his doppelganger—Gyllenhaal again, who regrettably defies the Star Trek rule of evil twins by wearing a beard in both identities. His double, it turns out, also has a blonde significant other, played by the angel-faced Sarah Gadon. Confrontation and commingling ensue at a very, very slow pace.
Gadon recently appeared in David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method and Cosmopolis, which makes her presence here especially appropriate. Enemy has the feel of one of Cronenberg's tales of decaying identity and madness, particularly the twin psychodrama of Dead Ringers. Some very Cronenberg-esque imagery involving tarantulas and a sex club doesn't seem to have much point beyond being weird.
Villeneuve fares best with his visual presentation of Toronto as a generic hell of streetcar wires, rain-soaked granite edifices and odd shapes. Twin buildings next to Gyllenhaal-2's apartment resemble precariously stacked dishes. But the director is less successful in building interest in the tale of transferred identities. The minimalist dialogue doesn't give much clue as to why there are two Gyllenhaals, and the glacial pacing builds impatience rather than suspense as they converge.
Villeneuve is one of the rare directors who know how to tap into the sadness and the unhinged quality behind Gyllenhaal's boyish good looks, and the moments when he becomes threatening have genuine tension. The film could have used more of that kick, along with better parts for the female characters. Gadon creates some poignancy and Isabella Rossellini provides some much-needed wry humor in her single scene, but Laurent has little to do beyond taking off her clothes and looking pouty.
Villeneuve has a great visual sense and a fertile professional chemistry with Gyllenhaal. For their next collaboration, they should try to get another great script like Prisoners and leave the giant tarantulas behind.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Everything's Jake."