“Chaos is order yet undeciphered,” hints Dennis Veilleneuve at the beginning of his new psychological drama, “Enemy.” A mystery is afoot, at the center of which stand Adam and Anthony (Jake Gyllenhaal), doppelgangers to each other’s otherwise opposite characters, tendencies, and lifestyles. What at first seems like a playful coincidence of likeness makes a sharp turn into a situation wholly inexplicable and rife with possibility. What these possibilities are and how they unfold are the key to revealing the psyche of each man. The secrets of the subconscious are the real protagonists here, unlocked not by words but by actions. For a film in which dialogue is replaced primarily by expression, Villeneuve demands we summon our abilities of mindsight to appreciate how both Adam and Anthony react to each other.
“Prisoners,” Villeneuve’s previous film, similarly (and phenomenally) examined competing character psychologies in the context of a kidnapping and criminal investigation, having the extra (and enhancing) benefit of realism. “Enemy” is fantastical in short bursts, but, impressively, does not allow us to suffocate it with however we imagine it may end. This is because we are firmly affixed in the moment, one success of the film; surely we dream, we worry, we ponder, but thought is always static, in the now, a creature of the present. In one instance, Villeneuve suggests we may be watching a story in medias res; if it is true that all we know is what we feel, the temporal aspect may not matter at all.
Some viewers will be put off by certain elements: the arachnid symbolism throughout and the lack of emphasis on moment-to-moment coherency has a Lynchian feel; but again, this is a thinker’s film, evident from the opening scene walking through a dimly lit corridor into a room where a group of men sit and watch a titillating display. Frustratingly, the performance is not given to us fully, but it ends with a shot of Gyllenhaal (Adam or Anthony, it isn’t clear) in a state of anxiety, grappling with something uncertain to him. The greatest disservice to pay this film is to watch it literally, a threat given how simply it seems to unfold. Rather, the jewels are in the complexity: the narrative points with no grounding, the unelaborated line spoken. Spending twenty minutes post-viewing to parse out where and how each piece fit is a true joy.
There is also joy in analyzing the cinematography and production design. Mostly, we exist in a sepia-doused world, the air hazy, the atmosphere a furnace. The set pieces and architectural shots are devoid of personality. Even each man’s apartment only differs with how expensive the furniture is. Objects are camouflaged into the background in both dark and light settings; when Adam is walking on his school campus, the mesh of concrete buildings behind him may as well be a blank canvas. We receive splashes of color when Anthony suits up and saddles his motorcycle, allowing us to wonder why he is ever the loudest image of the entire film.
The cast is essentially four actors, five if you count the single scene and voice messages of Adam’s mother (Isabella Rossellini). Gyllenhaal’s dark, deep-set features make him naturally adumbrative of disquiet, his full eyes intently watchful. Add in a touch of pensiveness, and he is fully the part of Adam, a history professor in a constant state of sullen unease. The plot unfolds mostly from his perspective until Anthony is discovered; for the majority of the time, he occupies the screen by himself, even when he (Adam), addresses a class of students. But while Gyllenhaal’s eyebrows are fully adept at displaying Adam’s inner-self, he dispels of them wholly as Anthony, who is comfortable with blank looks. Anthony—arrogant and conniving—lives a self-referential life, one from outward towards inward, how he believes others see him. The duality of Adam and Anthony is obvious, but obvious without blame as we watch how the film illustrates each of them. Do not yearn for character development while watching “Enemy”—it’s a staging of character all its own.
Melanie Laurent and Sarah Gadon, the female companions of Adam and Anthony, respectively, may at first seem to exist as stagehands for a series of parlor tricks, but again, things are not as they seem. Laurent has in the past been an easy personification of soulfulness, but is given to mousy diffidence here. Again, without giving anything away early, Villeneuve presents her character as transactional. Being that she is attached to Adam, it is easy to wonder why Gadon, Anthony’s suspicious girlfriend, plays a much more significant role. In one major scene towards the end, we are drawn in so powerfully by what she could be thinking that the scene’s climax is at best achingly satisfying.
At times “Enemy’s” ninety minutes may feel like a healthy two hours as Villeneuve forces us to seeth, brood, distress, or contemplate with his characters. But here, as in “Prisoners,” is another display of a director who revels in total immersion. Villeneuve understands that the character worth your emotional stake is the one you are standing beside. As with any other human being facing troubling times, we may not understand their what, why, or how, but empathy is never systematic. Often, it’s just being there as we see them through.