Denis Villeneuve’s latest film has deservedly been called ‘a film geek’s wet dream’, and after seeing it last night I think it has earned this reputation aplomb. I’d watched Villeneuve’s previous Hollywood feature debut Prisoners, also starring Jake Gyllenhaal, a few weeks earlier and had found the mixed reviews it received misleading. Prisoners was a taut and intriguing serial-killer missing-person yarn that is as good any from the genre (Seven, Gone Girl, Silence of the Lambs, Manhunter), which uses a complex plot about the choices a desperate father will make to search for his missing daughter by abducting the man he believes is responsible. What follows is a fascinating drama with strong performances from its assemble cast (Hugh Jackman, Terence Howard, Paul Dano and Maria Bello), spearheaded by Jake Gyllenhaal playing the obsessive detective investigating the case, and thwarted at every turn.
Similarly, Enemy presents themes of obsession, morality and violence in which a troubled University professor, Adam Bell, becomes obsessed with a man who appears identical to himself after he watches a film that was recommended by a colleague. This discovery sets him on a journey to find and confront this doppelganger, Anthony Claire, who appears equally astonished by this twist of fate, but who is also unwilling to let the matter rest until he has taken full advantage of this lookalike.
The story is adapted from the novel by José Saramago, who has had several film adaptations of his modernist novels which are known for containing surreal Kafkaesque symbolism, Freudian psychological fears made manifest and notions about the metaphysical. The tone and style of the film closely resembles the cinematography of David Fincher’s last film Gone Girl 2014, the story line of which seems to resonate here in Enemy, where relationships are torn apart by infidelities, deception and calculated revenge. Here, just as Gone Girl has a great soundtrack, the interesting score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans emulates the strange percussion instruments used in the The Master 2012, where synthesizers vibrate and cymbals clatter with foreboding menace.
One critic has said that Enemy will discussed amongst film students for decades as they try to determine what it’s all about, as we have seen before with other ‘cult’ hits; Donnie Darko (2001), Being John Malkovich (1999), Fight Club (1999), Taxi Driver (1976), Eraserhead (1977), Barton Fink (1991), A Clockwork Orange (1971), PI (1998) Memento (2000), and, ofcourse, Psycho (1960) which came before all of these. These films present complex narratives which challenge the viewer to interpret and decipher the plot whilst it carefully exploits film discourses about meta-narratives, postmodernism, Freudian psychoanalysis, identity, and even Quantum physics theories. Apart from Psycho, none of these has so boldly and deftly used narrative ellipsis and parallel points-of-view to mislead the audience, although Brian De Palma had been playing with this device for decades (Obsession, Blow Out, Body Double, Raising Cain, Snake Eyes, Femme Fatale), but with less subtlety and critical recognition.
The two films which Enemy most closely resembles is Adrian Lyne’s Fatal Attraction and David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers 1988, two nostalgic and iconic horror thriller films from the late 1980s, that present the disturbing and duplicitous corporate world of a greedy power elite (memorably satirised with the Reagan politics in Wall Street) . Strangely, Enemy feels like a throwback to those films through its depiction of a married couple dealing with the fallout of betrayal, and where Gyllenhaal’s duel personalities resemble the conflict and narcissism of the identical twins in Dead Ringers. At first Adam, the repressed history teacher, is elated to find someone he believes he has a connection with, but withdraws after an awkward meeting with the mysterious double, Anthony, in a hotel room where it’s revealed they share the surgical scar.As the narrative progresses we come to realise, as with Dead Ringers, that something is definitely amiss and there is a profound secret which neither one of them can truly understand. After Adam meets Anthony, and discovers that he is married with a pregnant wife, Anthony’s wife decides to investigate when she suspects him of infidelity.
In an Eraserhead homage, Adam is also haunted by a dream in which he plays the bell hop from the film which Anthony had appeared, and here it becomes difficult to discern whether Adam is trapped in a nightmarish fantasy, or if there’s some other supernatural force at work that is slowly warping his reality. This approach of surrealism and dream logic has already been portrayed in such films as a Darren Aronofsky’s The Black Swan 2010, and more recently in the award winning film Birdman 2014 directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, and I suppose audiences are now accustomed to the idea that reality in a film doesn’t necessarily have to make sense or be truthful. For example, in a scene in which Anthony’s wife confronts Adam, the director uses a Hitchockian camera trick when Adam momentarily disappears behind a wall just as she calls her husband to check his location. Adam behaves as if he’s never met Anthony’s wife, which at this point in the narrative we must assume he hasn’t, but when she arrives home Anthony returns minutes afterwards and appears completely ignorant of this encounter.
Several other key scenes provide the audience with clues that might lead to an obvious explanation. An opening scene in which Anthony, or possibly Adam, attends a sex party where an audience of men watch a dominatrix crush a tarantula with her foot. In a class lecture, Adam discusses how thought and free will are influenced by the government and the media, and that historically there is a pattern of censorship and suppression of knowledge. In another scene, Adam visits his mother, played by Isabella Rosselini, who discourages him from pursuing a career as an actor, but which Adam seems to deny. Unfortunately, this haphazardly seems to give away the plot twist, and yet we remain curious of Adam’s innocence, since the only possible explanation is that he must have a split personality, but if so, how could Anthony’s wife and Adam’s mother not suspect this? Or is this an evil conspiracy like in Rosemary’s Baby or Kafka’s The Trial?
It is here that a flaw becomes apparent as the resolution and separate paths of the two men become contrived. After a blackmail agreement between the two men, where Anthony bullies Adam into letting him take his girlfriend on a trip to seduce her, Adam’s girlfriend notices the missing wedding ring on Anthony’s finger and demands that they leave, and which then escalates into a heated argument and a car crash. Adam, after spending the night with Anthony’s wife, who suspects his true identity, wakes up the next morning and opens a sealed letter addressed to Anthony, which he’d stolen earlier, and finds a key. Presumably, the car crash scene and failed infidelity was a memory from an earlier incident, but which had been repeated with the precipitation of the two personalities coming together that allowed the dominant personality to regain power following Anthony’s demise. The symbol of the tarantula makes a final appearance suggesting Adam/Anthony’s darker side has not completely disappeared.
Although Villeneuve’s direction maintains the suspense to the final climax, perhaps this is down to Gyllenhaal’s dual performance since the central mystery isn’t exactly subtle. And as the film progresses, it relies too heavily on enigma and prolonging this mystery without being subtle. It reminded me of a A History of Violence (2005), in which a gentle family man is suspected of being a contract killer for the mafia, a film which doesn’t rely upon suspense to deceive the audience and instead explores these contradictions without ambiguity or camera tricks.