“Chaos is order yet undeciphered,” claims an intertitle early in Enemy. Later, panicked protagonist Adam Bell (Jake Gyllenhaal) excuses his hyperventilating while trying to reach out over the phone: “When I get excited, I just act a little strange.” Somewhere between those claims lies the thematic bulk of Enemy, a doppelganger story with a lot more style than substance.
Adam, a dissatisfied history professor, is jolted from listlessness after discovering Anthony Claire, a bit-part actor and Adam’s uncanny double. After a long pursuit that ratchets up dread for their first meeting, the doubles proceed to invade one another’s lives by way of the women in them: Adam’s girlfriend, Mary (Mélanie Laurent, squandered), and Anthony’s wife, Helen (Sarah Gadon, practically vibrating with quiet tension). Whatever the structural shortcomings, Gyllenhaal’s performance, around which the film pivots, is smartly nuanced. Rather than polar opposites who share a likeness, Adam and Anthony are on a smaller, tighter continuum of restless narcissism. Anthony’s excitement at inhabiting Adam is sly thespian sociopathy, but despite being more concerned with the Why, Adam stalls out even as Anthony threatens to consume him.
Director Denis Villeneuve, hot off the heels of the ultranoir Prisoners, opens the lens wide to encompass a Toronto so dingy as to be hopeless, expansive skylines and anonymous high-rises underscoring how easy it is to lose oneself anywhere. There are also Cronenberg-esque moments of surreal body horror that add speculative mystique, even if wrapped in half-hearted eroticism that feels like a holdover from a previous cinema generation. Still, despite the stylish veneer and the subtle duo performance at its center, Enemy’s underlying aura of inevitability comes off less like a study of the treachery of identity than a noir setup in search of resonance it can’t quite find.