I am not easily shaken, especially when it comes to movies. Scary movies are old hat to me; I was born and raised on horror films, and I have a fairly strong constitution. So it is no small matter when I say this: Enemy scared me.
Denis Villeneuve scored some mainstream success last year with Prisoners, a film that was well regarded with critics. I personally feel like it has some third act problems, but tonally and atmospherically, the film is a success—a sort of precursor to the excellent HBO show True Detective, in which solving the mystery isn’t as important as learning about the people trying to solve it.
After some success with Prisoners, it’s odd that Villeneuve’s Enemy is getting such a limited release. The film is barely playing anywhere, but I urge you to seek it out, because Enemy is the first great film of 2014.
Jake Gyllenhaal plays Adam, a dull history professor who lives in a sparsely furnished apartment. Occasionally his girlfriend Mary (Melanie Laurent) will stop by for sex, but it seems like Adam’s existence is on repeat. He teaches the same lecture on fascism over and over again. “Do you like movies?” a coworker asks him. Adam does not, but the coworker recommends a specific movie to him, and when Adam finally sits down to watch the film he discovers something shocking: a man who is his exact double is in the film as an extra. Through some crafty detective work, Adam tracks down Anthony (also Gyllenhaal), who looks and sounds exactly like him—he even has the same scars Adam has. But Anthony has an entirely different life, with a pregnant wife (Sarah Gadon).
What transpires between these two men, and their respective female partners, is the stuff of feverish nightmares, and I mean that in the best possible way. If David Lynch and David Cronenberg had a cinematic love-child, it would be Enemy. Villeneuve films the Toronto setting with a sickly, cold, yellow light. Even in the most mundane of scenes there is the sense that something, or in fact everything, is wrong.
The film is a puzzle, but it’s not interested in you getting to the solution. You can draw whatever conclusions you want from what’s happening here, but it’s not the destination that matters—it’s the ride.
The film goes to dark places—literally. Adam’s apartment is a futurist nightmare; there is a mysterious underground sex club, where men with stunned faces sit in the shadows and watch women perform strange deeds; and there are spiders. A string of overhead cables criss-crosses above Gyllenhaal’s head like a spider web; a crack in a windshield takes on the same webbed pattern. Permeating the film is an overwhelming, dreadful sense that things are amiss; that the world is not safe anymore; that something terrifying is waiting for us all.
Gyllenhaal is fantastic in both roles. He is wonderful at portraying these characters distinctly; you’ll never be confused as to which character is which (although Gyllenhaal’s characters themselves might). Laurent doesn’t have a lot to do, but Sarah Gadon as Helen remains a mysterious enigma—there is the sense that she knows more than she’s letting on.
Everything takes on a a secret meaning in Enemy: Adam’s visit with his mother (Isabella Rossellini) only raises more questions; a photograph that was in one apartment appears in another; a movie poster featured somewhere pops up somewhere else; finger ring-lines induce terror.
Enemy is not a film for everyone. Some people may dislike its deliberately obtuse nature, and the never-ending feeling of unease that blankets the whole movie is going to turn some off. But the film’s ending—oh, that ending. Even if you’re totally against everything that has come before, the ending to Enemy is going to terrify you. You’re going to leave the theater shaken. You’re going to want to be told everything is okay, and normal, and safe. And when you hear that, you’re really going to want to believe it.