Jake Gyllenhaal and director Denis Villeneuve collaborated on two projects in 2013 — the psychological thriller Enemy and the highly successful Prisoners. Despite being shot first, Enemy only received a limited release in the U.S. early last year, some months after Prisoners, and is just now being released in the UK and Ireland. As a result, you could be forgiven for approaching Enemy with scepticism. However, Villeneuve’s screen adaptation of Noble Prize winning author José Saramago’s The Double, a dark and troubling mindbender, is well worth the wait. In Enemy, Gyllenhaal plays a pair of doppelgängers, Adam and Anthony. Adam is a history professor who leads an apparently mundane existence — that is until he happens upon his exact double, a bit-part actor named Anthony. Adam becomes fixated with Anthony, and this fixation results in him seeking out the actor, a decision that has personal and psychological ramifications for both. Numerically identical, from the sound of their voices to matching scars, it is clear the men are not brothers. The question then is: what are they?
Enemy explores the banality of everyday life, the repetition many of us face, and is dominated by dreary sepia tones and shots that linger uncomfortably long on homogeneous apartment blocks and skyscrapers. Adam is unhappy with his existence — his dysfunctional, impersonal relationship and a teaching position that sees him repeat the same lecture ad nauseam. He feels trapped but does not know how to escape the prison society has created for him. Anthony, on the other hand, lives an idyllic existence. An aspiring actor with a wife and a child on the way, he could not ask for more. But beneath this façade lies a penchant for infidelity and an interest in underworld activities that few have, or would wish to have, access to. The men are drawn together by a seemingly malevolent force. As the film progresses, a power struggle ensues and their separate lives become immutably tangled in a web of debauched desires and dubious retribution. In the end, what begins as a trivial investigation quickly leads Adam to regret ever discovering his dark double.
Villeneuve is unwavering in his attempts to unsettle the viewer. From the tense ambiguity of the opening scene to its off-kilter conclusion, his brooding direction, as well as the jarring editing employed, create an intense and disturbing atmosphere that is present throughout. Though the twin protagonists’ motives are unclear, there is a never-ending sense that something terrible is only just around the corner. This sense is heightened by a suitably eerie score and by a number of disjointed sequences — shared dreams and bizarre fantasies — that jolt our sense of reality. Gyllenhaal, who is fast becoming accustomed to the role of sociopath, is perfect in the dual parts. At times comic and at others deeply distressing, his performance is in some ways a precursor to his role in Nightcrawler. Sarah Gadon, as the pregnant wife of actor Anthony, also provides a performance that is equally unsettling in its open fragility. Her apprehension towards the inexplicable situation and the strain Anthony puts on their marriage affords a morsel of empathy for the audience in an otherwise unsympathetic affair.
Enemy is the kind of film you’ll want to re-watch (perhaps more than once) in order to gain a greater understanding of it. It has been described as a ‘WTF? Film’, though this doesn’t do it much justice. You get a sense of how cryptic Enemy is when you learn that those involved in the production were required to sign waivers barring them from discussing the film’s meaning. One recurring visual in particular is worth a research paper in itself, and its influence will no doubt have a lasting effect on viewers, leaving them with an indelible mental image for some time after (and also a healthy fear of spiders). While some may question the merits of the film, especially given its intentional ambiguity and at times languid progression, this psychological thriller is sure to have audiences debating its meaning long after they’ve pried their fingernails from seat cushions. For that reason, Enemy is a great success.