Jake Gyllenhaal gives two excellent performances in “Enemy.” He stars as Adam, a bearded, rumpled Toronto history professor sleepwalking his way through life. He stars as Daniel, a slick, self-absorbed actor who is Adam’s physical duplicate. Each has a loveless, but not sexless, relationship with physically similar, emotionally distant blondes. Adam and Daniel trespass on each other’s life, and for a time it looks as if this will be a suspenseful tale of swapped identities and adultery. Then it verges into not-quite-real territory on its way to a madhouse.
This creepshow comes by its eccentricity honestly. It’s based on a doppelgänger novel by José Saramago, the only fantasy writer to win a Nobel Prize in literature. If you laid Roman Polanski, Jorge Luis Borges, Franz Kafka and David Cronenberg end to end, you might get something like this. It imagines what would happen to a humdrum man’s life if suddenly a hatch should open and something viscerally disturbing appeared in his living room.
The film nimbly plays with themes of identity and voyeurism. Daniel goes by the stage name Anthony, another layer of false identity. In an aside that says everything about his character, he insolently reminds his wife that his blueberries must be organic. When Adam visits his mother (Isabella Rossellini) to ask if he has any hidden siblings, she offers him blueberries and advises him, seemingly out of nowhere, to drop his dream of becoming an actor. Adam is our identification figure, but there are portents suggesting that his consciousness is somehow damaged. Slipping deftly between characters, Gyllenhaal gradually reveals them as individuals carrying similar burdens of frustration and resentment, but warped in different ways.
“Enemy” is a bewilderingly skillful metaphysical thriller combining Swiss-watch engineering and surrealism, like one of Dali’s melted timepieces. I watched each gripping scene in a continuous state of “uh-oh.”
Director Denis Villeneuve (of the spellbinding “Prisoners”) pushes tension and nausea into our very pores. He uses a yellow diffusion filter to give the surfaces and atmospheres of a big-city summer an oppressive, humid texture. Watching the movie makes you want to wipe the sweat off your brow. Mysterious imagery related to spiders skitters across the screen — symbolic webs in streetcar cables and shattered glass, along with jarring insectoid apparitions. Arachnophobes, be advised. And those with weak hearts might want to slip out before the climax, which belongs on any serious list of staggering cinematic sucker punches.