Jake Gyllenhaal up to the challenge of double role in ‘Enemy’

Even before his life starts getting weird, Adam Bell is messed up. A schlumpy Toronto history professor who drones on about totalitarian societies, Adam walks with a crabbed, defeated gait; his lovemaking with girlfriend Mary (Melanie Laurent) is as perfunctory as his lecturing style.

Maybe this explains why he comes down with a severe case of the heebie jeebies upon discovering his exact physical double in the form of a bit player in a minor movie. At least something is happening in Adam’s life. The actor’s name is Anthony Clair, he lives in town, and he’s a much more aggressive guy than Adam. They both have beards, and they are both played by Jake Gyllenhaal.

“Enemy” gives Gyllenhaal a dramatic workout, and he is up to the challenge. As the guy who played “Donnie Darko,” Gyllenhaal has experience operating in parallel lives, and he proves deft at navigating this film’s grim, enigmatic strategy.

Based on the Jose Saramago novel “The Double,” adapted by Javier Gullon, “Enemy” aims for the paranoid, closed-system intensity of vintage Roman Polanski. Toronto’s skies have a tarnished-gold sickliness, and the brutalist design of the buildings at Adam’s college fit the vague sense of a dystopian world in which the apocalypse seems to have passed by without anybody noticing.

We infer there’s something out of whack here even before we happen to notice a giant spider looming over the city—surely that’s a vision from a character’s nightmare, but whose?

Director Denis Villeneuve made the preposterously-plotted “Incendies” and the evocative but overwrought “Prisoners” (where Gyllenhaal gave a busy performance), and he’s scaled down his scope considerably here. To good effect.

From its mysterious opening scene at some sort of high-class sex club (why is that naked lady squashing a tarantula?), “Enemy” creates a creepy-crawly sense of dread. Sunlight looks poisoned, and even the pregnancy of Anthony’s wife Helen (Sarah Gadon) feels slightly sinister.

At a certain point Villeneuve needs to deliver on all this well-managed build-up, and “Enemy” admittedly stumbles in that department — the meeting of Adam and Anthony is somehow easier than it should be, and plot twists come according to formula.

However, its abrupt final sequence should have cult-movie mavens chattering online for some time to come. The ending’s sheer brazenness is a refreshing thumb in the eye to a film world in which just about everything needs to be explained.

“Enemy” (three stars)

A tricky little cult-film-in-the-making about a professor who discovers his exact double in the form of an obscure movie actor—both roles played by Jake Gyllenhaal. Director Denis Villeneuve gets a tense, paranoid atmosphere going, and even if the movie doesn’t sustain its mystery, it does have a humdinger of an ending.

Rating: R, for nudity, language, subject matter

Opening: Friday at Sundance Cinemas Seattle.

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