Denis Villenueve makes the most of tropes with doppelgänger thriller Enemy

Doppelgängers are well-worn narrative tropes usually relying on the comedic or mysterious consequences of swapped identities. But there’s something horrific in the idea of one person consuming another and Denis Villeneuve’s excellent new film Enemy chases the idea into some seriously dark and delirious corners. I haven’t had this much fun at the movies in ages.

Adam (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a tired lonely professor. Each day follows the same pattern: school lectures followed by dinner with his girlfriend Mary (Mélanie Laurent); rushed repetitive sex and sleep. A casual conversation with a fellow professor about cinema leads Adam to the video store where he rents a movie based on his colleague’s suggestion. The movie feels familiar to him causing vivid dreams of giant spiders and beautiful women. Adam takes a closer look at the film and discovers why his subconscious has been triggered: someone a perfectly realized doppelgänger is a character in the film.

Adam’s double Anthony (also Gyllenhaal) isn’t too thrilled to hear from him. He’s dealing with a struggling career and the suspicions of his very pregnant wife Helen (Sarah Gadon) who suspects his rushed secretive calls from Adam are proof that he’s resorted again to his old philandering ways. The two men meet tentatively wondering why they’re alike. Are they twins separated at birth? Adam’s mother (Isabella Rossellini) says no and that the whole thing is preposterous. Also he should give up his dream of being a third-rate actor.

At this point we’re nagged by the feeling of familiarity — surely there’s a reason why the two men are identical copies of one another. Maybe it’s aliens or a government conspiracy something echoing the plight of the ill-fated teens in Never Let Me Go . Instead Villeneuve and Gyllenhaal let the story chase its own instincts partly plotted partly anarchic. Unlike their last collaboration Prisoners an otherwise great film which became hampered by the need to tie together increasingly surreal plot threads and details Enemy doesn’t hand itself over to forced explanation. It follows its own internal logic whatever that may be. This is about as thrillingly surreal as a modern film gets and it’d be easy to be suckered by the heady rush of the whole thing if it wasn’t so beautifully crafted.

The mystery created by the two men begins to infect everyone around them and things spiral out of control. Gyllenhaal travels around hazy industrial cityscapes (Toronto and area playing itself; the film thankfully doesn’t pretend to be anywhere else) that look like visions out of early David Cronenberg. Villeneuve intercuts the drama with disturbing and beautiful dream sequences of giant tarantulas hovering over misty cityscapes an opiate version of Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds .

It’s Gyllenhaal’s film and he carries it well; his performance in Prisoners was one of the best of 2013 the kind of lived-in work that’s often overlooked. He plays Adam and Anthony a tiny fraction removed from truly identical characters smartly placing the task of discovering who’s who with the director and the audience.

Based on the novel by José Saramago The Double (in turn inspired by other tales of doppelgänger intrigue) the film differs from the source material in ways that are unobtrusive and suited to the medium. There are a lot of genres and stories at play in the film — the body horror urban erasure and metaphysicality of Brian De Palma and David Cronenberg and a genuine love of fairy tales history and ancient literary tropes.

Enemy is the rare kind of flick that’s oblique to the point of near incomprehensibility yet all the better for it assuming a confidence intelligence and playfulness in the audience rarely encountered these days. I don’t know if a second viewing would reveal more of the mystery but it’s deserving of one or two.

ENEMY directed by Denis Villeneuve starring Jake Gyllenhaal Melanie Laurent and Sarah Gadon opens Friday March 14.