Double Trouble: "Enemy" a mood-laden, hauntingly strange riddle

Enemy (2014)
90 min., rated R.

Twisty, moody, and surreal, "Enemy" is a metaphysical thinker about a man's crisis of existence, identity, and infidelity. As fascinatingly layered and tantalizingly strange as anything in the realm of David Lynch and David Cronenberg, evoking the former's "Mulholland Drive," as well as the casting of Isabella Rossellini, and the latter's "Dead Ringers," as well as the presence of recent muse Sarah Gadon and Canadian filming locations, the film would get a thumbs-up from both Davids or any auteur, for that matter. Director Denis Villeneuve (2013's pitilessly unsettling and comparatively streamlined "Prisoners") continues to be on the watch list as a methodical, forward-thinking filmmaker with an excitingly unique voice, showing even more of what he is capable of with "Enemy," a purposefully enigmatic and deviously crafted mind-screw that won't feed everyone's tastes. Cinephiles are sure to be wowed, and for those willing to take the extra mile in a movie theater, it will challenge like any addictive puzzle box.

In smoggy Toronto, morose college history professor Adam Bell (Jake Gyllenhaal) spends his days and nights going through the motions. He will lecture about control, dictatorships and repetition in class and then go to bed with his girlfriend Mary (Mélanie Laurent), and then get up and do it all over again. When a movie-buff colleague recommends a cheery movie called "Where There's a Will, There's a Way," he thinks nothing of it and then has a dream about one of the movie's bit players. This leads Adam to fast-forward the movie and pausing on the actor playing Bellhop #3 who looks exactly like him. After searching and finding Anthony Claire (Gyllenhaal), who goes by his stage name Daniel Saint Claire and also lives in Toronto, Adam does his own investigation, finding the actor's phone number from a package at his talent agency and calling his house. Anthony's jealous pregnant wife, Helen (Sarah Gadon), picks up the phone, alarmed that the man sounds exactly like her husband but claims to be someone else. Finally, when the doppelgängers get in touch and agree to meet in a hotel room, it will change everything. Adam and Anthony are physically and aurally identical, but Adam's mother (Isabella Rossellini) gives him no clarity.

Based on the 2002 novel "The Double" by Nobel Prize-winning author José Saramago and written by Javier Gullón, "Enemy" is the epitome of a slow burn. It propulsively lures the viewer under its spell, thick with portentous dread and an oppressive, nothing-is-what-it-seems mood, all accompanied by a daunting, quivering string score by composers Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. When you think you have all the layers peeled away, the film strings one along even further, having something else in mind and making sure you feel edgy. The way Nicolas Bolduc's substantially haunting cinematography captures the gray, muted palette of the Toronto skyline and then takes on a yellow, jaundiced tint for the interiors also factors into the riveting hold the film has on those watching. In dual roles, Jake Gyllenhaal effectively creates two distinct characters in the neurotic, stammering Adam and the confident, uninhibited Anthony. It's a testament to the actor that one is never unsure of who is who. As played by Mélanie Laurent and Sarah Gadon, the women in both men's lives are etched with more depth than they could have been.

The film's title refers to one's self being his own worst enemy and how it splinters one's psyche. Adam/Anthony's loss of freedom and reluctant acceptance of their lives become the driving force for the film's central mystery and all-encompassing goals. Upon repeat viewings, director Villeneuve and screenwriter Gullón have laid out the groundwork from the opening title card, a quote from Saramago's story "Chaos is order yet undeciphered." In the film's darkly dreamlike opening set in an underground fetish club, women perform sexual acts on a stage surrounded by leering men, one of whom is Anthony. A serving tray is brought to the stage and once the lid is lifted, it's revealed to be a tarantula crawling away before a woman's stiletto heel hovers over its hairy body. Adam is then heard speaking in class about a pattern that repeats itself. Going beyond the opening scene in the club, spiders and spider webs figure in as recurring visual motifs that link to the film's themes. Clues are dropped through musical and visual cues, but there are no concrete answers, an approach that could be frustrating and confusing but is clearly the filmmakers' modus operandi to intrigue and eventually reward viewers with the desire to ponder its symbolism and meaning.

The sort of film that euphemistically makes you work and initially might even make you feel unintelligent or bewildered, "Enemy" never cheats or insults one's IQ. There is so much going on underneath the surface that one viewing will be needed to take in the mood, letting it wash over you, and another to "get"—or subjectively interpretits thematically loaded subtext and philosophical ideas. At a taut 90 minutes, the film never once runs the risk of taking Adam's lectures literally and repeating itself, as every scene is integral to its ambitious design. And that ending? Villeneuve seems to have a way with endings if you've seen the ambiguous ending of "Prisoners," this one being a gloriously perplexing and unforgettably startling Rorschach test. From start to finish, "Enemy" unsettles and then nestles in the mind like a spider laying an egg.

Grade: A -