Toronto history professor Adam Bell (Jake Gyllenhaal) is more interested in the past lives of ancient Rome than his own dull existence.
When a curious co-worker asks him if he likes movies, Adam mumbles, “I don’t go out that much.” It’s an odd remark by a man with such a sexy girlfriend (Mélanie Laurent), one who is losing patience with him.
But Adam does rent videos, and one night while watching one, he sees a bit-part actor who looks spookily like him, a perfect doppelgänger. His personal history is suddenly about to get a whole lot more personal.
This is the deceptively simple setup to “Enemy,” a taut psychosexual thriller by Quebec’s Denis Villeneuve that won a leading five prizes at the recent Canadian Screen Awards, including Best Director.
Based on The Double, a novel by José Saramago, and scripted by Javier Gullón, it was filmed in Toronto in 2012 before Villeneuve and Gyllenhaal worked together on the bigger-budget hostage drama “Prisoners,” released last fall.
The locale is significant. Villeneuve and cinematographer Nicolas Bolduc, another Screen Award winner, bathe the city in sinister hues of brown and gray, making it seem like a threatening character.
Adam’s more immediate concern, however, is Anthony. He’s the actor the professor spotted in the video, whom he has subsequently tracked down and contacted. Anthony is the exact double of Adam in every physical regard, right down to the scars, but he’s considerably more aggressive — and possibly dangerous.
Anthony isn’t pleased to hear from Adam, and neither is Anthony’s pregnant wife (Sarah Gadon), who suspects her husband is up to something. He’s lied to her before.
Could the two men be twins separated at birth? The idea is shot down by Adam’s mother (Isabella Rossellini): “You are my only son.”
Admirers of Alfred Hitchcock, Roman Polanski and David Lynch will find a friend in “Enemy.” With a minimum of dialogue and incident, but maximum dread in the visuals and sound design, the film lodges into the deepest corner of our brain, the one where we hide fears that we don’t understand.
Gyllenhaal inhabits the Adam/Anthony roles, sliding between the milder and more menacing characters.
Enemy slowly but surely envelops us, like the web of the spider that seems to be crawling from Adam’s psyche right into the real world.
Who’s to say, though, what’s real and what isn’t? Certainly not Adam, a man haunted by his mirror image.