After about 72 hours of rumination I decided that I liked this film. It has its flaws, but there are enough interesting and well executed components to yield a net positive value and an overall worthwhile experience. Part of my critical philosophy is that if you’re still thinking about a film several days after you’ve seen it, then it has accomplished at least part of what all films should, which is to engage the audience and prompt individual interpretation. But Enemy is ruthlessly short on explanations, and I found that lack of clarity to be detrimental, creating a level of inaccessibility that made for an experience of equal parts intrigue and frustration.
Quebecois director Denis Villeneuve’s latest was actually filmed before his previous release, Prisoners (which edged its way into Moving Pictures’ 10 Best Films of 2013), and I’ve been anticipating Enemy’s wide distribution since it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival this past fall. Where Prisoners suffered a bit from the presence of too much plot, Enemy’s problems arise from a dearth of the same. Ambiguity is fine, I respect it in most cases, but Villeneuve fails to fully commit, landing the film in a contradictory, limbo-like realm between hard science fiction and allegory. Based on a novel by experimental Portuguese writer Jose Saramago, the story follows Adam (Jake Gyllenhaal), a dour philosophy professor, as he feverishly investigates another man who seems to be his exact double. This other man, Anthony (also played by Gyllenhaal), is a small-time actor Adam notices by pure happenstance, playing a bit part in a movie recommended by one of his colleagues. After some rather invasive detective work Adam is able to contact Anthony, and they eventually agree to meet at a motel outside the city. The two react very differently to the realization that they are indeed exactly the same, from the tone of their voices to the matching scars on their torsos. At that point Enemy veers further toward the surreal with the introduction of several bits of information that further convolute the characters’ identities, and the ensuing nefarious deeds blend that style with tropes of classic film noir.
Gyllenhaal does a serviceable job of differentiating Adam and Anthony, and while that feat seems to rely just as much on the hair and wardrobe department as the actor’s chops, it ultimately works because the narrative allows the two characters to be so uncannily similar. But it’s Sarah Gadon’s performance as Anthony’s troubled wife Helen that really stands out. With relatively few lines, Gadon conveys a sense of nervous confusion through expressive looks, pensive body language and the distressed tenor of her voice. In a film that seems rather uninterested in fleshing out most of its characters beyond what is necessary for the immediate plot, Gadon’s performance provides the audience with a much needed jolt of empathy.
The film’s visual elements are a strong suit, with some impressively alien-looking shots of the Toronto setting and a nicotine yellow washed look that adds a grimy air to the proceedings. Spiders also figure heavily into Enemy’s symbology; while I enjoyed the aesthetics of that, I’ll admit that I still have no idea how it connects to the story. A quick internet search tells me that spiders can symbolize anything from patience to mischief, but it’s a problem when the connection isn’t clear in a film that makes so many nods to that motif (the opening scene; a cracked car window that looks like a spider web; a nest of power lines and trolley cables also reminiscent of a web; the nightmarish image of a giant spider hanging over the city). The film’s sinister, string heavy score seems an appropriate choice in general, but at times it oversells the material just up to the point of silliness. I will say, however, that it was a rare and refreshing thing to hear some of the composers’ more vintage sensibilities rendered in a modern film.
Clearly I’m conflicted about Enemy; it was indeed a bit of a disappointment for me, a backslide from the promise of Prisoners, but that makes more sense when you consider that Enemy actually came first, so it’s really not a backslide at all, but progress. It’s also encouraging that Villeneuve seems to be in the middle of an extremely prolific period with several other promising projects in the works. Perhaps others will be able to make more sense of this film where I was unable, but even if not, it’s more interesting than the vast majority of what you’ll find at your local cinema, so why not give it a shot?