A film review by Craig J. Koban March 21, 2014

RANK: #16

ENEMY jjjj

2014, R, 90 mins.


Jake Gyllenhaal as Adam Bell/ Anthony St. Claire  /  Mélanie Laurent as Mary  /  Sarah Gadon as Helen  /  Isabella Rossellini as Adam's Mother

Directed by Denis Villeneuve  /  Written by Javier Gullón  /  Based on the novel by José Saramago

Like a strange, perverse, and deeply unsettling marriage of the largest extremes of a David Lynch, Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick film combined, Dennis Villeneuve’s ENEMY has puzzled and haunted me in equal measure ever since I saw it days ago.  I’m still trying to process it in some meaningful manner.  

It opens with a title card that states “Chaos is merely order waiting to be deciphered.”  No kidding.  ENEMY is, I guess, an erotic thriller about doppelgangers discovering their mutual existence, but that’s just barely scratching the surface of this twisted and unendingly menacing film.  By the time it all unravels and reaches its spin-tingling conclusion that will definitely prey upon some viewers’ worst phobias, I was left thoroughly unnerved.  I may not fully understand ENEMY, but I can understand the hypnotic power it had over me for 90 minutes…and It’s an uncommonly powerfully thriller.  

Very loosely based on Nobel Prize winning author Jose Saramago's novel THE DOUBLE, ENEMY deals with a Toronto residing History teacher, Adam (Jake Gyllenhaal) that lectures daily about the nature of totalitarian regimes and how they place a stranglehold on society.  Initially at least, he seems to have a grasp and passion for the material he covers in class, but the later scenes highlight the mundane repetitiveness of his job.  Ironically, he discusses during one of his lectures how Ancient Rome gave its citizens bread and circuses for the purposes of numbing them into distraction, yet distraction is what Adam desperately needs in his life right now.  He seems wholeheartedly broken down and jaded by every facet of his existence and seems to yawn his way through his days.  In short, he needs a pick-me-up. 

On one fateful day a fellow colleague recommends that Adam check out a specific film on DVD that he promises will help get him out of his existentialist funk.  Begrudgingly, Adam obliges the man’s recommendation, and when he watches the film on his laptop one night he makes a startling discovery: A bellhop can be seen in one sequence in the background played by an actor that…looks identical to him.  Not just a fleeting resemblance, mind you, but identical in just about every facet.  Like anyone else would when faced with such a startling discovery, Adam springs into action, checks the actor’s name in the credits, and promptly Google searches him for more film credits. 



The actor in question, Anthony St. Claire (also played by Gyllenhaal) is, like Adam, kind of stuck in a professional and personal rut.  He only has three acting credits to his name, but Adam seeks out those films and compulsively screens them.  Like a classic Hitchcockian protagonist driven by escalating obsession, Adam is driven to discover more about Anthony and meet him for some answers.  Through some intrepid detective work – and, at one point, impersonating him during one impromptu exchange – Adam is able to deduce Anthony’s phone number and address.  Going for broke, Adam decides to call Anthony, and after receiving some angry and deeply suspicious responses from both him and his pregnant wife Helen (Sarah Gadon), Anthony slowly begins to obsess about Adam’s existence as well.  When Anthony plans a meeting with Adam at an out-of-town hotel, the film’s descent into a dark, dreary, and disturbingly weird rabbit hole is only just beginning.  

I can’t really say much more about ENEMY’S plot, per se, which would engage in massive spoilers.  One thing is overwhelmingly clear: Adam and Anthony are astoundingly alike in manners that don’t just involve physical appearances (and they are exact doubles, even right down to scars).  Both men, as stated, suffer from occupational woes and feel unfulfilled.  Both men grow increasingly fixated on the other.  Hell, both men even have blonde girlfriends that both suspect them of infidelity.  Adam’s relationship with Mary (Melanie Laurent) is becoming colder and more detached by the day, whereas Anthony’s with Helen is also on life support, as she suspects him of being unfaithful.  As the film unravels from one bizarre and completely unpredictable scene to the next, you’re left with a nagging feeling that Adam and Anthony’s worlds are about to mutually implode.  

Alas, who are these people?  Are they twin brothers separated at birth?  Are they clones?  Or, more intrinsically fascinating, are they not doubles at all, but rather just one man seeing double while on the road to emotional meltdown?  If the latter case is true, then which version is the real version…Adam or Anthony?  The sickeningly intoxicating allure of ENEMY is the manner with which it teases and torments viewers into posing such queries without feeling the need to slavishly answer them.  Villeneuve’s direction amps up the film’s undulating sensation of horror and unease throughout, as he meticulously constructs scene after scene and shot after shot that explores the fractured and pained psyches of its two main identical characters.  With a piercing score from Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans and the ominously nightmarish cinematography of Nicolas Bolduc, Villeneuve evokes a world around these characters that serves to suffocate both them and audience members.  Even the city of Toronto here becomes a threatening character in itself; the city has never been portrayed so chillingly antiseptic and uninviting.  

ENEMY also reinforces that Jake Gllyenhaal just might be one of the most thanklessly decent actors of his generation, and one that never seems to get the respect he deserves.  He has worked with Villeneuve before (on last’s year’s masterful mystery thriller, PRISONERS), and here the actor has to firmly entrench himself within the damaged mindsets of two distinct characters that feel connected, but nonetheless are discretely different.  He makes Adam a shy, introverted, and empty shell of a man, whereas in Anthony we see a man with a swinging-dick level of arrogance and narcissism.  Gyllenhaal carries every moment of ENEMY squarely on his capable and stalwart shoulders.  There’s rarely a scene in the film when you don’t fully invest and buy into Adam and Anthony’s mutual anxiety and ever-growing emotional breakdown.  Like the film’s script, Gyllenhaal’s cagey performance leaves you guessing as to whether Adam and Anthony are indeed one in the same. 

ENEMY flirts with surreal spider imagery throughout, driven home in particular by its creepy-as-hell opening sequence to its final shocking conclusion that ends on a punch-to-the-gut shot that will, no doubt, be argued and debated by film scholars for years as to its literal and metaphysical meanings.  I’m quite sure that multiple viewings of ENEMY will be in required for me in the future to put together all of its puzzle-like pieces to create a meaningful semblance of a whole.  Granted, I’m also sure that a dozen viewings may not fully unravel the tangled and convoluted web of meaning buried deep within ENEMY.  This is a film that will have some hailing it as a masterstroke work of mood, pacing, and tension and many others throwing their popcorn at the screen in frustrated disgust by the time the final credits role by.  I, for one, won’t shake this film off me for an awfully long time.  Even if you can’t grasp what’s going on here, there’s no denying how pervasively the film lures you in and never lets go.  

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