Canada. Directed by Denis Villenueve, 2013. Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Sarah Gadon, Melanie Laurent. 90 minutes.
I try to go into a movie knowing as little as possible as possible about it. Sometimes I’ll be familiar with a trailer–one of the nice things about the peculiar subset of film that I cover for the Gallery is that trailers aren’t as often plagued with the problems that those for mainstream movies have–and a log line, but that’s it. If something strikes me as interesting, I’ll do my damnedest to avoid press coverage and even discussions with other people.
Here’s what I knew about Enemy at the moment I brought it up on Amazon Instant Video: it’s about a guy who meets a double. The other guy seemed to be an actor of some sort, seemed inclined towards intimidation, and dressed like he lived some sort of glamorous life or something.
I figured it was going to be a fairly straightforward action-thriller with a SF element…you know, like Orphan Black would be if it were a movie starring Jake Gyllenhaal. After the existential antics of +1 and Coherence, that would be just the ticket.
That’s being said, let’s ponder the words of Karl Pilkington one last time (I’m not using this quote in doppelgänger movie reviews anymore):
“What would do me head in is…does he think the same way, look the same way…how would I know which one I was?”
—Karl Pilkington, when asked about how he would respond to meeting his own doppelgänger
Pilkington said that in a podcast episode he recorded with Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant. Gervais and Merchant respond by opining that that must be the stupidest question ever asked: you know which one’s you because you know you’re you. To which I would have asked, “…or are you?”
I’ll get back to that later, maybe; right now, let’s get back to Enemy. The two Jakes are Adam Bell and Anthony Claire. Bell is a nebbishy (or at least as nebbishy as Jake Gyllenhaal is allowed to look) history prof who doesn’t seem to have much of a relationship with his girlfriend Mary (Mélanie Laurent of Inglourious Basterds fame). Neither appears all that interested in the other, and while they do seem to have a fair amount of sex, it doesn’t seem particularly satisfying.
Meanwhile, Anthony Claire is (as I surmised) an actor, working under the stage name Daniel St. Claire. He’s more confident and less unkempt than Bell, but otherwise the two are identical. He’s married to Helen (Sarah Gadon, Cronenberg’s latest muse; she starred his last two movies, his upcoming Maps to the Stars, and his son Brandon’s Antiviral). Their relationship isn’t much better than Adam and Mary’s, although it must be marginally so because Helen is pregnant and Anthony enjoys privileges at a local sex club.
So. Adam discovers he has a doppelgänger and tracks Anthony down. Their meeting leaves them both anxious, confused, filled with dread. How can this be possible? Even if they are somehow long-lost twins, it’s impossible for two people to be exact physical duplicates, even down to scars and choice of facial hair, right?
That’s when a certain thing happens, a shocking thing, a thing that insists I recontextualize everything I’ve seen so far. That thing is the image of a huge–we’re talking kaiju-sized–spider striding above the Toronto skyline. From that point on, it becomes apparent that not everything that appears on-screen is meant to be considered as “real” and it’s up to the audience to determine what, if anything, is actually happening.
Writer/director Denis Villenueve has constructed one hell of a cinematic puzzle, and Enemy has a lot to offer viewers who like combing a movie for clues to what’s actually going on. The problem I have with the film is that’s not how I play the game, I’m not constantly scanning the image looking for the key to understanding the scene. (One YouTube video purporting to explain Enemy states that you can tell which of the Two Jakes appears in a scene: he’s “obviously wearing a wedding ring” and is therefore Anthony. But I’m not the sort of person who registers wedding rings, in either images or real life, unless my attention is directly called to them, so I missed that vital clue.)
I tend to go for writing/story first, then visual aesthetics. I wasn’t much impressed with the former: while I enjoyed the Pilkingtonian (see, told you I’d get back to that quote!) essence of the quest to find the true nature of the Two Jakes, the characterization is so weak I didn’t find myself emotionally invested in the outcome. Mary is a complete cipher as a character; Helen isn’t much better, although I do like Gadon as an actress and she puts in a good performance here.
The look and the feel of the film are the main selling point to me. I’m not a huge fan of Villenueve’s work but I’ll give him that he’s got a great eye and a palpable feeling of dread oozes from every frame of the film. He clearly put a lot of thought behind the ideas. I just wish he’d done more work on the characters.
While I didn’t like Enemy as much as I wish I had, I respect Denis Villenueve for having the guts to make a film that demands the audience pay very close attention and use its brain. Sadly, it’s not quite my thing.