Review: ‘Enemy’ Is a Confusing, Enthrallingly Tangled Web of Mistaken Identity

Jake Gyllenhaal, EnemyA24 via Everett Collection

Jose Saramago’s acclaimed novel The Double is a twisting, stream-of-consciousness narrative about a man who accidentally stumbles across his doppelganger. Full of long-winded passages designed to keep the reader confused as to what is real and what is imagined, it’s the kind of story that requires multiple readings in order for anyone to follow the abrupt and opaque turns the plot takes. It’s fitting, then, that Enemy, Denis Villenuve’s loose adaptation, is equally as confusing and enthralling. It might not be entirely faithful to the text, as there are some significant changes (including the addition of a disorienting recurring spider motif), but it’s extremely faithful to the trippy and suspenseful tone of Saramago’s work.

Only Villeneuve’s second English-language film, the director has been making his mark in Hollywood with dark psychological dramas, and Enemy might be the film that makes studios finally sit up and take notice. Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Adam Bell, a mopey, rumpled mess of a history professor, who spends his days lecturing to a hall filled with uninterested students, and his evenings in a quiet, repetitive stupor with his girlfriend, Mary (Melanie Laurent). On the recommendation of a colleague he decides to break out of his routine by renting a movie, where he discovers that one of the actors looks exactly like him. From there, he devotes his free time to tracking down Anthony Clair, a decision that results in Adam getting trapped in a web of secrets, lies and mistaken identities.

However, the film holds on tightly to whatever the truth is, and keeps its buried somewhere underneath all of that creepy spider symbolism. At a few points, it seems as if something is about to unravel the whole affair – we’re on edge through visits to Adam’s mother (Isabella Rossellini) and conversations between the academic and Anthony’s wife Helen (Sarah Gadon). The film’s central design seems to be one of confusion and disorientation, but in a rewarding way.

That seems to be the goal of Enemy as a whole, and if it is, then it succeeds. The mystery of the film unfolds slowly, and both Gyllenhaal and Villeneuve draw out every scene in order to ratchet up the tension. Even then, though, the film gives off more of a constant feeling of unease than anything resembling a traditional thriller, which is heightened by the sickly yellow color palate that Villeneuve uses. Everything in the movie feel awkward and off, and forces the audience to attempt to break out of the twisted plot in the same way as Adam does.

There are times when the drawn-out, off-kilter nature of the film becomes frustrating, especially when the characters run away just as it seems like Enemy is about to show its hand. But even with the lack of answers, it still manages to present a riveting, suspenseful story. Much of this is due to Gyllenhaal’s two-faced performance, in which he relies heavily on elements like posture and clothing in order to differentiate between Adam, Anthony, Anthony-as-Adam and Adam-as-Anthony. He slips effortlessly between being a sad-sack and an arrogant jerk – a feat which the characters themselves, interestingly enough, are never quite able to achieve. It’s a tour-de-force performance, albeit a quiet one, and as the two men become more and more entwined, Gyllehaal adds layers and depth to both of them.The film doesn’t ask much of its supporting ladies, however, with Gadon, Laurent, and Rossellini playing one not characters who are tortured, confused and aloof, respectively. They exist mostly as plot devices that Gyllenhaal can play off of, there to remind the audience whether we’re watching Adam or Anthony.

At only 90 minutes long, Enemy feels longer, which is meant in both a good and a bad way. Even when Adam and Anthony spend an uncomfortably lengthy scene circling each other, waiting for the other to make a move, the film is tightly paced, and packs a lot into a short amount of time. If it were any longer or any shorter, Enemy might be more of a let-down, but an hour and a half is just enough time to keep you squirming in your seat before releasing you back into the world with more questions than you came in with.