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Awesome: 12.5%
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1 review, 2 user ratings

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by Peter Sobczynski

"Insert "The Two Jakes" reference here. . ."
4 stars

The notion of what might occur if a person inadvertently ran into their exact double is one that has intrigued storytellers for a long time--even after filtering out narratives involving twins, clones and whatever the hell happened to Ron Silver at the end of "Timecop," the idea has inspired authors like Fyodor Dostoyevsky ("The Double") and Mark Twain ("The Prince and the Pauper") and fueled films ranging from the silly ("Dave") to the sublime ("The Double Life of Veronique"), not to mention any number of hacky sitcom episodes. The latest and perhaps the loopiest variation on this theme is "Enemy," a defiantly oddball adaptation of Jose Saramago's novel "The Double" (no relation. . . or is there?) that takes the basic premise and spins it out in ways both creepy and unexpected. The end result is a reasonably interesting work that finds director Denis Villeneuve creating a palpable atmosphere of creeping dread throughout but stumbling in the home stretch with a finale that would leave David Lynch himself scratching his head out of utter bewilderment.

Speaking of Lynch, the opening scene of the film--a tour of a bizarro underground sex club in which men furtively watch a stage show involving beautiful naked women seemingly doing inexplicable things with tarantulas--seems to have sprung directly from his psyche. After that ripe slice of strange, we are whisked away to the somewhat less edgy milieu of Adam (Jake Gyllenhaal), a Toronto-based professor who ritualistically spends his days boring his students with rote lectures and his nights in his antiseptic apartment eating in and having mechanical sex with his girlfriend, pretty pale blonde Mary (Melanie Laurent). Adam is so deep in a rut that when a colleague innocently asks him if he likes watching movies--the kind of mindless breakroom chitchat that is the default for two people going through the motions of being part of a society without making any real effort--the look on his face suggests that he has just been asked if he like torturing kittens with a blowtorch. Nevertheless, Adam decides to follow up on the colleague's recommendation of some fluffy cinematic concoction by renting it and watching it. Afterwards, while trying to sleep, something about the film nags at him and when he goes back to check out one particular scene, his suspicions turn out to be true--one of the background players is his exact spitting image.

From this point on, I will attempt to be as circumspect as possible with the details but suffice it to say, we are eventually introduced to Anthony (Gyllenhaal again) and in addition to being an exact physical double for Adam, right down to a similar chest scar, he too has a pale blonde better half in the six-months-pregnant Helen (Sarah Gadon) and a vague sense of dissatisfaction with his existence. Although Adam's first attempt to make contact with Anthony goes about as badly as possible, the two are still intrigued enough to finally meet and size each other up. While Adam tries to make some of sense out of this seemingly impossible occurrence, even grilling his mother (Isabella Rossellini) about the possibility of a heretofore unknown twin brother, Anthony starts looking for a way to manipulate the situation in order to see if Adam's existence is preferable to his own. Meanwhile, even though neither of them know the whole story, both Mary and Helen begin to suspect that something strange is up--the difference is that while Mary remains largely in the dark, Helen not only seems to have a better grasp on the situation but she also appears to be intrigued by the possibilities.

For those keeping score at home, Villeneuve and Gyllenhaal previously worked together on last year's "Prisoners," the overwrought revenge melodrama that received a mystifying amount of praise in some circles but which I found to be little more than a pretentious version of one of the lesser "Death Wish" sequels at best and an odious near-justification of torture at worst. Because of its pedigree, I can't say that I went into "Enemy" (which was actually filmed before "Prisoners" went into production) with much enthusiasm but I have to admit that this collaboration is an infinitely more interesting work. The screenplay by Javier Gulion (which I understand differs from the source novel in several key ways) does an effective job of approaching familiar material in a fresh way that always leaves viewers guessing as to what is really going on throughout. Villeneuve's direction is equally skillful in the way that he slowly builds the narrative tension while simultaneously unnerving viewers with such elements as a decidedly dark visual palette and the increasingly creepy soundscape--if Alfred Hitchcock and David Cronenberg could have ever collaborated on a film project, it might have turned out quite a bit like this. In the central role(s), Gyllenhaal turns in his best and most effective work since the similarly strange "Donnie Darko" and is ably supported by Gadon and Laurent, who pull off performances that are just as complex in their own ways as his.

For most of its running time, "Enemy" is undeniably intriguing and manages to navigate its tricky material with a lot of undeniable skill without stepping wrong. However, when it comes to wrapping things up in the final moments, the film does finally stumble and while it doesn't wreck everything that has come before it, it does put a damper on the proceedings. Now I understand that a film like this is not going to feature a conventional ending in which everything is explained in nauseating details and all of the loose ends are tied up--I probably would have been outraged if it had even attempted such a thing. At the same time, as mindbenders like "2001" and "Mullholland Drive" have proven, even decidedly surreal movies can end in a satisfying, if oblique, manner as long as it fits in with the rest of the proceedings. The ending of "Enemy" is definitely strange and, despite what some critics have said, it does tie in with some of what we have already seen. However, what does happen is so weird and so abrupt that it just doesn't quite work. A film like this should have an ending that inspires debates long into the night but the one supplied here will inspire only grumbles of "What the hell was that supposed to be?"

And yet, if you can somehow find a way to come to terms with the ending--and this may indeed be one of those cases in which a problematic conclusion plays better on a second viewing--"Enemy" is an undeniably compelling freakout of a film that offers viewers one of the stranger screen trips that they have had in a while. Whether they will want to take it, of course, is a different question entirely--films featuring obtuse situations, chilly characters and moments of absolute weirdness that may or may not add up to anything are not often the first choice for a night's entertainment for most people. Granted, it may not be for anyone but those up for something on the thoroughly trippy side should find it, despite its flaws, to be worth a look. And if you should happen to see someone in it who looks disconcertingly like yourself, you might want to just keep it to yourself.

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originally posted: 03/21/14 08:37:17
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Palm Springs International Film Festival For more in the 2014 Palm Springs International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

2/13/17 morris campbell good but will puzzle most people 4 stars
12/30/14 Langano Brilliant. 5 stars
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  14-Mar-2014 (R)
  DVD: 24-Jun-2014


  DVD: 24-Jun-2014

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