(This review is being republished, as Enemy is now available for rental on Amazon and ITunes and should seriously be watched as soon as possible).
Save for two high-profile misfires, maybe the most underrated actor of the last decade has been Jake Gyllenhaal, which seems almost laughable when you consider that one of those misfires was the swords-and-sandals clusterf*ck Prince of Persia, which has been a huge blemish in an otherwise tremendous decade of filmwork. Since Persia, Gyllenhaal has regrouped and returned to the kind of solid, non-flashy work he’d been so good at in films like Zodiac, Brokeback Mountain, Jarhead, Rendition and Brothers. They’re character-driven movies made for adults with talented directors and modest budgets.
People often forget, because he was so overshadowed by Heath Ledger, that Gyllenhaal was also nominated for an Oscar for Brokeback, and the last four performances he’s turned in demonstrate exactly why. Source Code, End of Watch, Prisoners, and Enemy have given Gyllenhaal meaty, unpretentious roles in strong films that haven’t gotten a lot of attention, but are certainly remembered by those of us that have seen them. But because he’s not losing weight, playing an important historical figure, or depicting mental illness, Gyllenhaal’s name doesn’t come up at awards time. What’s also interesting is that a guy has been making these movies with a minimum of fuss; they aren’t heavily promoted, he doesn’t do a ton of promotion himself, and he’s selective about the talk shows he appears on (Letterman, Charlie Rose, Jon Stewart). He’s quietly rebuilding a remarkably impressive resume in films that aren’t heavily touted, so much as they are eventually found by people who appreciate great performances in solid films.
His latest is Enemy, and it is a trippy little mindfuck. It’s a Canadian/Spanish production directed by Canadian Denis Villeneuve (who also directed Prisoners) based on the 2002 erotic thriller The Double from Portuguese author José Saramago. It stars an American in Gyllenhaal, a Parisian in Mélanie Laurent, Canadian Sarah Gadon, and Italian actress Isabella Rossellini. It’s a fascinating film, and to give anything away besides the premise would completely spoil it.
Gyllenhaal plays Adam, a history teacher bored with his life, who stumbles upon a film one night and notices that a background character in it looks exactly like him. He becomes obsessed with his lookalike, Anthony (also Gyllenhaal), and ends up stalking him, which in turn spooks Anthony’s wife, not just because of the stalking, but because of the exact physical resemblance her husband has with this unassuming history teacher.
That’s all that should really be said about the plot, except to say that Anthony and Adam are not long-lost twin brothers. I’ll also say this: It’s a very literary film, brimming with foreshadowing, symbolism, and metaphor, and anyone hoping for a cinematic twist of an ending will go home disappointed. It reminded me, strangely, of Timecrimes, and it’s satisfying in a way that a magnificent short story might be satisfying, rather than in a way a Hollywood ending might feel fakely satisfying. That is to say, the more you re-examine everything you’ve seen before, the more you appreciate Enemy, and the way it laid the groundwork for the surprise ending.
Gyllenhaal carries the film, as he would have to since 90 percent of the film centers around one of his two characters. It’s a restrained performance, but alert and magnetic. He’s found in Villeneuve a director who brings out the best in him, and I hope that Gyllenhaal continues to work with him and other strong directors, as he quietly carves himself out a nice little niche as a reliable actor in the kind of films we need more of: Movies made for grown-ups.