Acclaimed director Denis Villeneuve brought to the world two incredible films in 2013. The first one was Prisoners, a slow-paced thriller with towering performances from Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Terrence Howard, Maria Bello, Paul Dano, and Melissa Leo, and terrific Oscar-nominated cinematography by Roger Deakins. The second one was Enemy, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last year but did not get a general theatrical release until this past March. I was lucky enough to see the film at the Angelika Film Center in New York City. I had been curious about the film, and I was glad that the film turned out even better than I had hoped. The one thing I didn’t count on was how much of a mind trip it turned out to be.
Based on the novel The Double by Jose Saramago, Enemy starts off in an erotic club where men watch women pleasure themselves on a stage. It’s here where we meet Anthony (the first of two characters played by Jake Gyllenhaal). Then we’re introduced to Adam (the other Gyllenhaal character), a college professor who lives a boring, mundane life. One day, Adam rents a movie that was recommended to him by a colleague. While watching the movie, he discovers that one of the bit actors in it looks exactly like him. He tracks down the actor, Anthony, and eventually convinces him that they should meet. Once they do, their lives are forever changed as the more aggressive Anthony, who has a pregnant wife, becomes obsessed with taking over Adam’s life as an escape (and a way to sleep with Adam’s girlfriend).
One of the most fascinating things about this film is that the story being told could’ve easily belonged to a film directed by Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, or David Cronenberg. In fact, Cronenberg may be the biggest influence on the film. Enemy fits in with the “body horror” films (both physical and mental) that Cronenberg has been making for years. It actually makes for a nice companion film to Cronenberg’s 2002 film Spider, a film that also features metaphorical spiders and a main protagonist who’s trapped in a mental web. Like most of Cronenberg’s films, Enemy was shot in Canada, and it has been quite some time since the urban Canadian landscape was used to create such an eerie environment (kudos to director of photography Nicolas Bolduc).
The main attraction here is Gyllenhaal’s excellent dual performance. He succeeds in creating two halves of the same coin (so to speak). Once the truth is discovered, you can’t help but feel for what everyone has gone through, especially Anthony’s very pregnant wife Helen (an excellent Sarah Gadon), who has to cope with what kind of man her husband is becoming. Which one is really the professor? Which one still has dreams of becoming a big-time actor? Without spoiling that, I do believe that the spiders represent Helen’s pregnancy and the future that Anthony thinks he’ll have once the baby is born. Both men are caught in a mental web, but will they be able to break free? This is certainly a film that invites repeat viewings, and it gets even better each time.