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Twins Or 'Enemy' — And What Could It All Mean?

Jake Gyllenhaal acts with stunning control and specificity in his double role as two lookalikes.
Courtesy of A24
Jake Gyllenhaal acts with stunning control and specificity in his double role as two lookalikes.

Strange and stylish and surpassingly dark, Denis Villeneuve's Enemy — especially paired with the same director's recent cop thriller Prisoners — makes a strong case for star Jake Gyllenhaal as maybe our most enigmatic young leading man.

He was twitchily fascinating in Prisoners, playing a character who'd prove a hero but who still seemed to be hiding some darkness, some damage, right up until the credits rolled. In Enemy, he's not one but two characters dwelling deep in shadow — one man more menacing, one more moody, each one ultimately a conundrum steadfastly refusing to show all of himself to the audience.

Adam Bell is a Toronto history professor and a bit of a sad sack, delivering desultory lectures and having even more desultory sex with his girlfriend when he can be bothered to look up from his grading stack. He lives in an underlit apartment with a perpetually unmade bed, and Gyllenhaal, who's acting with every inch of his body in this film, makes him look like he smells of gin and regret.

Then, watching a DVD one grim evening, Adam spies a man, an actor playing a bellhop in a broad comedy, an actor who looks exactly like him. Startled, he looks up the guy's credits — they're pretty scanty — and tracks down the two other movies. Soon enough, he's obsessed, paying surreptitious visits to the actor's talent agency and eventually working up the nerve to call the guy's house. A woman answers, and mistakes Adam's voice for that of the actor, who's her husband. Things only get weirder from there.

Gyllenhaal plays the husband too, of course, creating a character who's subtly, unshowily recognizably not the same as Adam, even in the long wordless sequences Villeneuve likes to let the movie wallow in. It's in the set of his shoulders, the sharpness of his glance, the way his body fills space differently; Anthony, the actor, is hungrier for life, greedier, crueler.

Mind games will shortly be played, lives will be upended, and throughout, Villeneuve and screenwriter Javier Gullón, working from a novel by José Saramago, do their level best to murk things up and make you wonder: Are these men long-lost twins? (No, says Adam's mother, played tartly by Isabella Rossellini.) Has Adam gone mad and imagined Anthony? (No, suggests the amiable reaction of an attendant at that talent agency, who recognizes Adam as the actor.) Are they one man, somehow leading a double life? (No, suggests the reaction of Anthony's heavily pregnant wife (an outstanding Sarah Gadon), whose curiosity leads her to seek Adam out at his campus workplace, where she's stunned by his physical familiarity and he recognizes her not at all.)

As the questions mount and the plot's twists get more and more improbable, the director's fierce control and fine-grained technique grow all the more impressive. His Toronto, as shot by cinematographer Nicolas Bolduc, is a hell of grime and nicotine-yellow light. And he's recruited the team of Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans to score the picture with what might as well be a single long groan of low strings and metal-on-metal shrieks; the effect is a creeping, inexorably escalating tension of the most delicious kind.

A few of the film's stylistic and thematic gambits are so arty and surreal that some audiences will be frustrated. (Is that ... a spider? Why are they in that sex club? Is this all about control, about men and their fear of women, about hunger and the terror of fulfilling it?)

But anyone with an appetite for the hypnotically odd — for a story that seems firmly rooted in a grim quotidian reality, but that's unmistakably off at its very core — will want to watch Enemy two or three times, looking for the tiny clues that may or may not just be there. (Recommended)

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Trey Graham edits and produces arts and entertainment content for NPR's Digital Media division, where among other things he's helped launch the Monkey See pop-culture blog and NPR's expanded Web-only movies coverage. He also helps manage the Web presence for Fresh Air from WHYY.