During these past few months, if you had asked me what movie I was the most excited to see, I probably would have chosen this one. Maybe this was because it was a popular source of discussion over the Internet, or because somebody as well-known as Denis Villeneuve (Blade Runner 2049) directed it, or simply because I’m drawn to really, really weird or divisive movies. Either way, however, Enemy was near the very top of my “must-see” list… and I knew almost nothing about it.
I didn’t see any trailers, didn’t read any online reviews, and didn’t even research any information about the film other than its basic premise. Considering how many other movies I went into knowing nearly everything about them, I wanted at least this one, which was so revered among online film analysts, to be completely unspoiled before seeing it. In some ways, this really paid off for me after receiving the Blu-ray for my 17th birthday (the day I finally popped it into the living room TV and saw it), but in others, I’m honestly not quite sure.
As you may have already heard about, my initial feelings about Enemy were not very positive at all. In fact, I was fully prepared to write a mixed review of it as soon as I could, only to make myself sit through Chris Stuckmann’s and YMS’s analyses [HEAVY SPOILERS IN LINKED VIDEOS, OBVIOUSLY] just for the sake of being more informed about the film (and so I wouldn’t get any comments saying that I should have done so before trying to discuss it here). However, after doing that, then rewatching the movie almost immediately afterwards, my opinions on it radically shifted. What initially struck me as a stagnant, pretentious attempt at being “artsy” soon revealed itself to be an intelligently mind-bending puzzle, an atmospheric, dreamlike mix of Hitchcock and Lynch that may be hard to immediately decipher, but is even harder to forget.
To really get into Enemy’s plot would be to spoil its entire experience, so I won’t say very much besides this: Adam Bell (Jake Gyllenhaal), a glum, quiet history professor, spots his exact physical double, Anthony Claire (also played by Gyllenhaal), in a movie recommended to him by a fellow colleague. Upon trying to track him down, the situation gradually gets even more bizarre as the lives of him and the double, who couldn’t be more different from Adam personality-wise, are soon completely entangled.
Summarized like this, Enemy doesn’t really seem like anything more than a fairly standard dopplegänger story. In fact, despite being based on a book that got mixed reviews (José Saramago’s The Double, from which the film’s tagline, “Chaos is order yet undeciphered”, is appropriately lifted), it is actually the most unique and fascinating—if occasionally frustrating—subversion of it that I’ve ever seen.
Without giving anything away, the film smartly uses such a well-worn premise as a jumping-off point for much larger things—including identity, sexuality, fear of martial commitment, and more. Even simply describing it as a fascinating psychological mystery wouldn’t quite do justice to Enemy, for its more carnal aspects (particularly an underground sex club that we’re suddenly introduced to in the film’s opening, and gradually figures its way into the plot later) also make it a compelling erotic thriller, despite most of its steamier moments being featured towards the beginning and end.
However, I have to admit that the slow, moody pace at which everything moves was a bit off-putting to me at first. Nothing really seemed to be happening in the film’s second act, and the fact that the two men don’t even psychically meet until the 50-minute mark was quite surprising—and even a little disappointing—to me at first. Upon a second watch, however, all of that works so well for what Enemy is going for that I didn’t even notice it in the slightest. Whether you will feel the same way is admittedly debatable, but still.
What isn’t debatable, however, is just how potently this material is brought to life. Every single frame of the film is coated in dark, dirty (yet somehow aesthetically pleasing) shades of yellow, brown, and white, which, combined with Villeneuve’s tense direction and the haunting noir-ish score, hugely amplify the paranoia and surrealism of screenwriter Javier Gullón’s vision.
Towering above all of this, however, is the one thing that makes or breaks a movie like this: Gyllenhaal’s pair of performances. Thankfully, he’s more than up to the task of making the dispirited Adam and the brasher Anthony instantly able to tell apart, seemingly slipping into these characters’ minds without a single trace of effort. Not since Nicolas Cage’s central dual roles in Adaptation. have I seen somebody do this so flawlessly, and seeing Gyllenhaal join those ranks makes me incredibly eager to check out his other “big” movies (i.e. Prisoners, Zodiac, Nightcrawler, and Donnie Darko).
If there is one issue I still have with Enemy (and admittedly, this may be more of a personal preference than anything), it’s how inaccessible it is to those who don’t immediately understand it (myself included). Looking back at The Lighthouse, I remember not fully understanding everything it was going for upon first seeing it, but still being able to enjoy it on many different levels regardless. And sure, I found it easy to admire the film’s top-notch performances, direction, and cinematography on my first watch, but still slightly struggled to connect with its themes and story regardless. If there was ever a movie I’ve seen thus far that I could confidently call “not for casual audiences”, this would be the one.
So despite my slightly complicated feelings about it, Enemy is ultimately exactly what I was expecting: a dense, twisty little movie that will entrance some people and seriously confound others. For me, that’s ultimately a very good thing. For others, feelings will obviously vary a bit more, but moviegoers in search of something more challenging than usual thriller fare, something that doesn’t immediately give them all the answers they’ll inevitably be searching for, are highly encouraged to give this film a try. Then, if they don’t immediately like it, another try. Trust me—it’s worth it.
*[HEAVY SPOILERS AHEAD] And yes, in case you’re wondering, my interpretation of the film falls very much in line with Stuckmann’s. It makes complete sense that Adam and Anthony would actually be different versions of the same severely schizophrenic person, and that the spiders would be symbols of how he feels about women. Getting into every single crevice of one of Enemy’s clues and secrets would take away far too much of my time (and can be easily supplemented by Stuckmann’s video anyway), but suffice it to say that that ending is not “weird-just-for-the-sake-of-being-weird”, as I initially thought it was.
YMS’s analysis (released nearly a month before Stuckmann’s) covers some of those same beats, and is also quite interesting overall, but I’m not sure if I can believe that nearly the entire movie takes place inside Adam’s/Anthony’s subconscious. It’s certainly undeniable that a number of scenes are meant to be more metaphorical than not (particularly when the two “talk” over the phone and “meet” in a gloomy motel room), but almost every single situation not happening in real life seems like a bit of a stretch. But hey, that’s just me.