Saturday, March 22, 2014

His Own Worst ENEMY


Adam (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a troubled college professor. We don’t know the source of his anxiety, but he enters Enemy distracted and a little jumpy, his hair slightly mussed, his posture defensive and slouched. He’s on edge, ignoring calls from his mother and behaving inattentive in his encounters with his girlfriend (Mélanie Laurent). Life doesn’t get any easier for him when he spots an extra in the background of a movie he happens to watch one night. He rewinds and pauses. The extra looks exactly like him. Rattled, he googles his way to the extra’s headshot. Why, he’s identical. Adam calls the actor. They have the same voice. Adam stalks the man until finally he sees him. The actor’s name is Anthony (Jake Gyllenhaal). He’s kind of freaked out about their doppelganger status, too. His wife (Sarah Gadon) suspected him of having an affair, but this is a whole lot weirder.

It’s never clear why the two men are so disturbed. They behave immediately as if they’re in a thriller, skulking about, looking over their shoulders, nervously circling each other. At one point they decide to meet up in a hotel and for a brief moment I wondered if the movie would be about the perils and attractions of dating your doppelganger. No such luck. Apparently Adam and Anthony have seen Arnold Schwarzenegger in The 6th Day or, even better, Tatiana Maslany’s great work on the TV series Orphan Black. The point is, there are plenty of reasons to suspect nefarious somethings are afoot when you’re confronted with your exact duplicate, down to the same scars. There’s some unidentifiable connection there that’s so painfully obvious on a visual level. It remains unanswered, a mystery to them and to us as they slowly freak out while spying on each other. Each even covets the other’s significant other. Both women are similarly proportioned blondes, so I guess the men’s tastes are duplicated as well.

It’s all so very creepy for sure, and the film takes on a nervous, fuzzy vibe that moves lugubriously through waking nightmare territory as reality bends around these men and their mental states. We’re talking full on nervous breakdown, the kind where you hallucinate a naked woman with the head of a spider walking on your ceiling. There’s some undiluted nightmare fuel here. The final sequence, with a sudden shift in the boundaries of all we think we know about the world of the film represented by one very wrong thing is an especially great shock. The film has jolts of imagery that in their suddenness and eerie calm recall the terrifying person stepping out from behind the dumpster in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, a far superior film involving doubles and disintegrating reality. Enemy doesn’t go far enough. It kicks up so much unease that’s it’s hard to ignore, but remains so straight-faced and dull that I found myself cherishing it’s surreal interjections all the more for their infrequency.

Director and co-writer Denis Villeneuve (loosely adapting a José Saramago novel with the help of screenwriter Javier Gullón) worked with Gyllenhaal in last year’s Prisoners, a solid dread-soaked missing-child mystery. Enemy has some of the same sustained intensity of tone, but often seems to miss how funny it plays. The Gyllenhaals glower at each other, alternately intrigued and terrified, jealous and repulsed by each other. It’s never clear why they feel the way they feel, their more intense outbursts cause for suppressed snickers, at least from where I was sitting. Only a cameo by Isabella Rossellini, as one of their mothers, seems to have a sense of humor, and even then it’s only funny in the way she appears to puncture the film’s self-serious pulpiness. He explains the doppelganger predicament and she calmly waves off his concerns with a stop-being-so-silly shrug. Maybe this overburdened germ of a good idea would’ve played a bit better with a stronger pair of performances from the lead. Gyllenhaal is a fine actor, but here gives a one-and-a-half note performance stretched across two characters, like a blanket that’s just short enough to leave a limb hanging out no matter which way you contort yourself.

The experience of watching Enemy is not unlike stumbling across a yellowed used paperback with a great cover and a fun hook in the blurb on the back, then actually reading it and discovering a slow slog of motifs and incidents, wrapped up in sensational luridness that’s too little and too rare. Repeated spider imagery runs throughout, from the spider-face woman to a dream of a monstrous arachnid floating over the city and the opening context-free scene of men watching a stripper methodically crush a tarantula under her high-heels. This underlines the ickiness of it all, but doesn’t seem to come to much beyond conflating spiders with women in a way so half-formed it’s neither potent nor offensive. As I left the theater, I overheard an elderly couple solemnly discussing their bafflement. “Seems to me,” the man told his wife, “if you figure out those spiders, you’ve figured the whole thing.”

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