Deni Villeneuve’s thriller Prisoners was one of my favorite movies of last year. Since then I’ve been eagerly awaiting his new film Enemy, which was filmed before Prisoners, so it’s technically not new. Either way, the auteur potential exhibited in Prisoners is on full display here. Enemy is a wholly independent doppelganger mind-fuck that’s leaving many folks (including me) scratching their heads. It’s also terrifying the hell out of audiences with its shocking ending, which has got to be one of the most unpredictable climaxes in years.
Beneath a thick cloud of Toronto gloom, history professor Adam (Jake Gyllenhaal) lectures his students about the repeating patterns of totalitarianism that threaten society. The Roman Empire, he explains, used “bread and circuses” to control their citizens. Nowadays, governments limit education and censor media to keep society clueless about what’s really going on. These ideas, I believe, are ultimately what the movie is all about. Not on any conspiracy level though – on a very literal one. If, that is, you can piece together the meaning behind all of the questions, answers, symbols, and spiders Villeneuve presents in the film.
Adam would’ve been a drag in Roman times. His chosen forms of entertainment don’t reach beyond grading papers and screwing his girlfriend. Then one night he rents a “cheerful” movie recommended by a coworker, only to see himself playing a bellboy. Or, someone who looks exactly like him – a bit actor named Anthony. Adam becomes obsessed with his doppelganger (who wouldn’t?) and as confrontations between the two men escalate, some unnerving horrors about themselves and society are uncovered. In nature, two of the same thing cannot exist at the same time. This apparently goes for Gyllenhaals as well.
Enemy is based on the Nobel Prize-winning book The Double by José Saramago. Just from a cursory glance at the book’s synopsis it’s obvious Villeneuve and screenwriter Javier Gullón used the plot to create their own Kafkaesque allegory about fascism. That’s how I interpreted it at least, though the second time around I may draw something else from the puzzle pieces Villeneuve peppers throughout.
The film’s prologue is a big clue, I think. Without spoiling anything, it contains ideas that connect to other key themes in the film: control through entertainment, how men treat women, and, most prevalently, spiders. All of these concepts subtly repeat throughout until the film’s horrifying ending, which reinforces Villeneuve’s heady ideas in the most shit-your-pants way possible.
Enemy clearly weighs on the shoulders of Gyllenhaal, who does a praiseworthy job carrying the film in his dual roles. Mélanie Laurent and Sarah Gadon play his love interests with an icy cool demeanor and the always great Isabella Rossellini has a brief but strong appearance as his mom. Her scene is a short one, but has a couple of plot shockers in it, so pay attention.
With Enemy and Prisoners, Vulleneuve proves he’s capable of creating incredible films on an independent and big studio level. I’ve read a few reactions to Enemy that called it “pretentious,” which I think is complete bullshit. It would be pretentious if the film was vague and surreal with no ideas to back it up, but the clues are all there. Villeneuve wants people to figure it out and he respects the audience enough to allow them to do it themselves, rather than get all pedantic on our asses. To dismiss Enemy as an arthouse wank-off is just plain lazy…and that’s exactly how our fascist rulers want us to be, ya dummy!