Review: Arcane Storytelling & Stylish World-Building Meet in 'Enemy'
by Jeremy Kirk
May 9, 2014
Enemy, the latest cerebral thriller directed by Prisoners helmer Denis Villeneuve, can suitably be described as an absolute mind-bender. That is to say the film’s screenplay rides the thin line between total understanding and complete bafflement. Villeneuve’s directorial style and color provide stylish yet discomforting flares to the narrative, and the dual performances by Jake Gyllenhaal (who also starred in Prisoners) are among the strongest of the actor’s career, not to mention the equally strong supporting cast.
All of Enemy’s window dressing serves the cryptic and foreboding script well, but much of that will be distant in the viewer’s mind compared to the arcane story their left to decipher. It isn’t that Enemy doesn’t know what it’s saying, far from it. However, piecing together the puzzle of images and plot turns Villeneuve and screenwriter Javier Gullón have crafted proves much more difficult than is necessary.
Gyllenhaal, at first, plays Adam Bell, a college professor who seems content with spending his days teaching students about totalitarian societies and history repeating itself. Bell is growing bored with what his life has become, an endless stream of pre-planned classes and a lonely personal life save for his single girlfriend (Mélanie Laurent). That aspect seems to be getting bored for Bell, also.
All of that monotony disappears when Bell, watching a movie based on a colleague’s recommendation, discovers he has a doppelganger, a bit player in the film who looks and sounds exactly like him. Naturally, curiosity gets the better of him, and Bell seeks out and then becomes fascinated by this identical man. Needless to say, their discover of one another is about to rock both of their worlds. The name of the movie is Enemy, so don’t expect long walks in the park and a brewing bromance to grow between these two.
Yet, even knowing the title and knowing the basic direction in which the events are going to unfold doesn’t keep you from having to guess where Enemy is headed from one moment to the next. It doesn’t take rocket science to ascertain there’s more going on under the hood of Gullón's screenplay (based on the novel "The Double" by José Saramago) and Villeneuve’s film than meets the eye. Bell has frequent nightmares, strange imagery full of spiders and nudity that adds an increasing sense of dread.
There’s even more going on in Bell’s world than is initially presumed, though much of that is also left unexplained and enigmatic. The film seems almost gleeful in holding back information, which is both a blessing and a curse when it comes to dissecting its meaning. Gullón writes with a voice that falls just on the normal side of David Lynch, the Canadian director Villeneuve’s eye hitting just on that same side of David Cronenberg. By the end (and by the film’s WTF ending), all you’re left with are theories as to what is actually going on, theories that provide both subtextual as well as literal meanings for everything. We can simply rest assured knowing the filmmakers understand the story their telling.
But the confusion left in the wake of watching Enemy cannot necessarily be considered a drawback, especially when the film is such a treat to take in. Villeneuve and director of photography Nicolas Bolduc incorporate a sepia tone to everything, and the melodic camera movements add to the nightmarish environment. You’re never of the impression that it’s all part of Bell’s subconscious or a dream, but there’s something otherworldly about it all. Enemy doesn’t really hit the sci-fi nail on the head, but a paraphrasing from the movie Se7en might come in handy. If Gyllenhaal’s head opens up and a spaceship flies out, you should probably be expecting it.
Not that he has to endure such physical limits in his performances, but Gyllenhaal is fully on board with whatever Villeneuve has in store for him. As with Prisoners, their last collaboration, the actor and director end up fleshing out conflicted and troubled characters. In Enemy, Gyllanhaal’s double performance is never distracting. Quite the contrary, he effortlessly shifts between characters, pulling off confused sympathy at one turn and cool intensity at another. With spot-on performances coming from supporting players like Laurent and Sarah Gadon as the doppelganger’s pregnant wife, the lead nails every scene of the film from beginning to end. Mild spoiler ahead, but even the simple expression on Gyllenhaal’s face when the film reaches that end speaks volumes.
It speaks volumes, but I’m still at a loss trying to dissect exactly what it’s saying. Enemy is going to be a frustrating film for many, at least when it comes to describing exactly what plays out. There's little denying Villeneuve's talents as a director at this point, and Gyllenhaal reinforces his status in the business every time he comes out of the gate. Enemy is a challenging film that should a matter of pride for both actor and director. The message may be muddled, but in a world of ubiquitous and stale properties, it's exhilarating enough to know that some filmmaking talents are still trying to shock us.
Jeremy's Rating: 8 out of 10
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