The Two Jakes, by David Bax
With last year’s Prisoners, French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve made a big step into American prestige filmmaking. That film was a little too self-consciously portentous to get off the ground but it had heavy domestic and human themes, sturdy work from Hugh Jackman, possibly career-best work from Jake Gyllenhaal and sharp, grimly beautiful cinematography from Roger Deakins. For his quickie follow-up, Enemy (Prisoners debuted at Telluride in August of last year; Enemy bowed at Toronto the next month), Villeneuve stripped down his scope to make a mind-bending but still hermetically sealed mystery that’s a full hour shorter than its predecessor. It’s a commendable venture but, shorn of Prisoners’ adornments, it appears Villeneuve doesn’t have much of anything original to present.
Gyllenhaal plays Adam, a college professor whose life of washed out repetition may not have been out of place in the Coens’ Inside Llewyn Davis. Unlike Llewyn, though, Adam isn’t striving to break free of his rut. He teaches, he goes home, he has sex with his girlfriend (Melanie Laurent), he goes to sleep. One day, a coworker suggests an exciting alternative to this drab routine. Why doesn’t he rent a movie? He picks up the recommended DVD and, at home, he watches it with the same dearth of pleasure he seems to take in sleeping with his significant other. Eventually, he notices something. One of the minor roles in the movie is played by an actor who looks exactly like him. Curiosity understandably piqued, he decides to track the man down.
From there, things get weird. Or, they should, except that Villeneuve has already been going at a pitch of weirdness from the beginning, as if everyone involved knows they’re in a movie that’s going to get weird sooner or later. Gyllenhaal’s jittery, paranoid behavior in his day to day life doesn’t seem to be nearly as off-putting as it should be to his coworkers and students. The class he teaches appears to be in the subject of Heavy-Handed Metaphors 101, since he repeatedly gives the same lecture on duality.
Enemy is so dense with pretensions of intrigue that there isn’t any way in. At no point do characters behave like human beings. When the two Jakes learn of one another, there’s isn’t a single moment of reason where at least one of them goes, “Hey, do I have a twin from whom I was separated at birth?” or presents any other uncommon but plausible explanation. No, they both behave from the jump as if the world has suddenly becoming a terrifyingly nonsensical place. This overreaction extends to the rest of the characters as well. Anthony (the actor) has a wife who is practically on the verge of a panic attack at seeing her husband’s double. Villeneuve and screenwriter Javier Gullón (adapting the novel by José Saramago) find the place to which they should have spent the first half of the film building, set the whole damn thing there and never move it an inch.
Still, even without Deakins, Villeneuve achieves a startlingly rich and consistent look. Cinematographer Nicolas Bolduc shows us a towering and oppressive world. The people are dwarfed by the structures that surround them, the crushing uniformity of which highlights humanity’s insignificance. We are unique but that only separates us from one another. Individually, we are puny.
Adam’s existential fears are manifested not only in his external surroundings but also in his subconscious. Without a doubt, the best bits of Enemy are Adam’s nightmares, which grow over the course of the film from dread-inducing but realistic situations to monstrous and perhaps apocalyptic visions rendered with a restrained and seamless use of CG imagery. I hesitate to spoil any of them but the motif of spiders becoming human becoming monsters still won’t prepare you for the film’s jolting final images.
A director like Brad Anderson could have gone to town on this story, bringing not only the scares but also the humor and humanity that make those moments even more effective. Villeneuve, alternately, seems perhaps to not trust the material. He pumps it so full of foreboding augury that it becomes soggy and waterlogged. Maybe he ought to take more time with the next one.