NOTE: Unfortunately, I was unable to write a review for this film without including potential spoilers regarding its central themes. If you haven’t yet seen the film, go see it now and come back later, or continue reading at your own risk.
“I’m sorry, I think there’s been a misunderstanding.”
“Chaos is order yet undeciphered,” reads a title card at the beginning of Canadian film director Denis Villeneuve’s recently released hypnotic mystery-thriller, Enemy. And indeed, Villeneuve’s film — about duality and identity and, it seems, split personas — takes that statement to heart. Enemy is a chaotic puzzle constructed of fractured pieces that viewers must first put back together in order to even begin deciphering the truth behind the film’s characters, its high-concept narrative, and that confounding yet beautiful ending shot that is likely to stick with you for quite some time.
On a recent episode of the pair’s podcast, film critics Brad Brevet (Rope of Silicon) and Laremy Legel (laremy.com) discussed this notion that you don’t need to entirely comprehend or understand a film in order to love it. I sort of blindly accepted that statement without digging too deep to create my own pool of films with which to back up the pair’s assertion. It seemed correct, on the surface, but I didn’t have a ton of evidence to totally verify its validity.
But then I went to the theater, saw Enemy, and left after the aforementioned bewildering closing shot and thought two things almost simultaneously: first, that I absolutely loved the film I just saw, and second, that I didn’t have much idea what exactly I just walked away from. Was it all a dream? Did I read too much into it? Was this a new installment of “The Twilight Zone?” To those questions, I respond “no”, “no”, and “maybe”, but more on those in a second. First, a brief description of the plot.
Adam Bell (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a sullen history professor at a local university. He has a girlfriend (Melanie Laurent), but their relationship seems just as tedious and humdrum as Adam’s day job. One night, while watching a film recommended to him by a fellow faculty member, Adam discovers a background actor who looks uncannily like himself. In fact the two don’t just share similar traits, they look exactly alike. The actor, Anthony St. Claire (Jake Gyllenhaal) — stage name: Daniel — also lives in the city and, as we discover, has a wife (Sarah Gadon) who is six months pregnant.
Anthony is essentially the man Adam wishes he could be: suave, charismatic, ruggedly handsome, and successful. He carries himself well, exudes confidence, drives a motorcycle, and shares with his wife a high-rise in downtown much nicer than Adam’s low-rent apartment. Adam seeks to meet his newly discovered double, but when he does, he is more freaked out than he is intrigued. The two have the same voice, the same body composition, the same hair pattern and color, the same eyes, the same hands, and even the same abdominal scar, which runs diagonally across each man’s left external oblique.
What does this all mean? Are Adam and Anthony brothers, long-lost twins perhaps? Or is their duality real in mind and spirit, but not body? In other words, are they not two separate beings but rather two sides of the same person, two personalities simultaneously inhabiting one man? At this point, you’re probably thinking, “Okay, so it’s Fight Club,” or any of your other split-personality, dissociative-identity thrillers of choice. But that’s where you’re wrong. While many films have been made about duality, identity crises, and split-personas, few leave the entire onus on the viewer to make the determination as to what exactly the case is. Here, we don’t really get any overt clues.
There are no briefly flashed frames of one character meant to convey a shared body, no third-act flashbacks with a character removed to show the audience what it already assumed. What we see is Jake Gyllenhaal facing off with Jake Gyllenhaal trying to figure out which Jake Gyllenhaal is the real Jake Gyllenhaal. Are they both real? Is one a figment of the other’s imagination? Will the real Jake Gyllenhaal please stand up?
Speaking of Gyllenhaal, the actor — fresh off an excellent but overlooked performance in another Denis Villeneuve film, last year’s Prisoners, which was actually filmed after Enemy — gives not one but two excellent though also likely to be overlooked performances here. As Adam, he is glum, disheveled, and slouched, lacking confidence in almost every aspect of his person; but as Anthony, he is debonair and handsome, a man with prominent physical presence acutely aware of his effect on others. Melanie Laurent (Inglourious Basterds) is a joy to watch, too, though Sarah Gadon, a relative unknown to this reviewer, is the real scene-stealer of the two female characters.
The movie was shot on location in Toronto, the city viewed here through a jaundiced color palette that perfectly befits the film’s dark mood and tone. Also working in the film’s favor and helping craft its chilling, eerie atmosphere are a nuanced score filled with haunting percussion and woodwind sounds and some really great editing that both moves forward the narrative at a deliberate pace and allows it some room to breathe. At just 90 minutes in length, Enemy is a full hour-and-change shorter than Villeneuve’s Prisoners (153 minutes), but no matter his film’s runtime, it seems the director and his team of editors really understand how to pace thrillers. What we get here as a result is basically an ultra-eerie episode of “The Twilight Zone,” stretched to 90 minutes but never feeling drawn out or overlong.
Based on the Jose Saramago novel “The Double,” this is a film that lives, breathes, and thrives in the shadows, and that’s where Villeneuve tends to leave us. We don’t get much in the way of back-story to start the film. There is an opening sequence that involves one of the Gyllenhaal characters — Anthony? Adam? — at what appears to be an underground sex club of sorts, replete with exotic dancers, creepy men, silver platters, and tarantulas. If that combination seems odd, well, you’re right. And then, right after, we begin the film in Adam’s history classroom as he gives what is likely just another in a long line of stiff, repetitive, mechanical lectures that bore his students to bits.
Enemy is a slow-burn mystery that has no interest pandering to its audience. It doesn’t grab your hand or guide you from one clue to the next to help you piece together what happens, who is who, and what this all means. Instead, it drops you right in the middle of its characters lives and lets them drive the narrative, forcing you to think for yourself and postulate your own theories about what exactly you are witnessing. If you like this method, you’ll almost certainly enjoy Enemy, as the tension created throughout the film builds and builds and builds, making you wonder what exactly will happen next. I can see how this might be frustrating for some, but it worked really well for me, as Villeneuve’s directorial execution is nearly flawless.
Further, in Enemy, characters’ motivations are seen, not stated. For example, when Adam decides he wants to speak with and meet Anthony, we aren’t informed via dialogue or obvious visual clues his exact motivations or the reasons for this desire. Rather, we as viewers are put to the test, placed in the shoes of the gloomy professor, left to deduce his motivation as the film’s events unfold. Similarly, there is another scene later in the film that involves one of the men’s mothers — whether she is Anthony’s mom or Adam’s is for you to decipher — that is intriguing for two reasons. First, because we are clued into the characters’ motivations and learn key information as the visit occurs, as opposed to beforehand through some throwaway expository dialogue; and second, because the scene serves as an important piece of the film’s narrative and thematic puzzles.
Enemy relies heavily on actions and visuals, and in fact, it contains what seemed to be a very small amount of spoken dialogue. This dependence on what we see and what we think instead of what we are told outright makes Enemy far more interesting than most of today’s films, and especially its psychological thrillers.
If you don’t like this mode of storytelling, however, you’ll probably end up like the woman sitting next to me, who huffed and puffed her way through the film making statements like “I don’t get it,” and “This is terrible,” and asking questions like “What was the point of that?”, and “Is this ever going to pick up?” Though perhaps my favorite moment of the entire night (film aside) was when, upon her return from a bathroom break, the woman’s husband attempted to fill her in on what she missed and she very coldly replied, “Don’t bother.” Poor guy. Hopefully he wasn’t left to sleep on the couch, though if he was, he probably had plenty of time to think about the film without being disturbed by his wife’s heavy sighs.
But I digress. Director Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy is one of the most unusual, transfixing films I’ve seen in some time. Thirty-six hours removed from the film, I am still thinking about it frame-by-frame as best I can remember. Where most films today can be almost immediately tossed aside, a film like Enemy leaves you thinking about it long after the final credits roll. That, for me, is the mark of a truly great and effective film. Villeneuve’s Enemy is uneasy, moody, and thought-provoking as all get out, a mesmerizing film I urge you all to experience — and once you do, we can finally engage in conversation about all the spiders and that astonishing last shot.
Grade: ★★★★½ out of ★★★★★
MPAA Rating: R for some strong sexual content, graphic nudity and language
Runtime: 90 minutes