“Enemy” is a fascinating, surreal psychological thriller by director Denis Villeneuve. Jake Gyllenhall’s acting in the film is very impressive, as is the film’s cinematography and colour scheme, and oppressive horror-styled score.
[Note: It’s very difficult to discuss this film without spoilers, so I’ll add a load of line breaks here, as the review proper, below, contains spoilers.]
Movies like this – big twist movies, “mindfuck” movies – are difficult to talk about, because the discourse surrounding them tends to focus solely on the mechanics of the story, the twist, decoding the surprise. “Fight Club”, “The Prestige”, “Primer”, all these sorts of movies suffer from this, which I find personally frustrating, because a lot of these films (certainly “Fight Club” and “The Prestige”) have a tonne more going on thematically, and the directors were clearly playing with a lot of concepts and ideas, not just the mechanics of a surprise twist in the plot. I’m uncertain how much “Enemy” has to it beyond the twist though, and since the twist is never flat-out stated or explained in the film, discourse still revolves around what exactly it is.
My reading of the film is that the two Jake Gyllenhalls are indeed the same person, with the actor Jake Gyllenhall partially a figment of teacher Jake Gyllenhall’s imagination. Seems to me teacher Jake is struggling with commitment, with feeling trapped, with his sex life. He cheats on his wife to some extent, whether going to the creepy sex clubs shown at the start of the film, or by having an actual affair with Mélanie Laurent’s character. His wife, played by Sarah Gadon, is aware of this, and is frightened and saddened by the depths of his psychosis, the bizarre split personality he’s created for himself. She indicates as much by telling Gyllenhall’s character he knows what he’s doing, by being very sad at the school where Gyllenhall acts like he doesn’t recognise her, and by her comfort with “teacher” Gyllenhall at their house, sleeping together. Gyllenhall’s scenes with his mother also fit into this context, as she indicates they’re the same person through her mention of blueberries and his acting career.
At the end of the film, the wife asks him to “stay”, seemingly hoping his teacher persona, the warmer more committed one, will stick around. But he takes off, presumably to embrace another split identity (the actor one seems terminated after the presumably imagined car crash), which leads to her cowering and sad in the corner. As a spider. The spiders symbolising entrapment, commitment, dictatorship, being stuck…all Gyllenhall’s character’s fears. I find the sexual and gender politics of that off-putting and bizarre, but I feel like that’s coming just from the Gyllenhall character’s messed up mind rather than any actual convictions of Villeneuve.
So, where does that leave us? The film is decoded, both on a plot level and a thematic one, with the symbolic spider (as well as the recurring keys) “unlocking” the representational ideas of women and commitment as a trap, etc. Again, I find that whole mindset really disquieting. Anyways, the movie feels pretty hollow to me after thinking it through. It has an interesting plot, fascinating lead character/s, and thematic material at play…but the whole mystery box style of it, I find it offputting. It doesn’t quite come together for me; it feels more concerned with misdirection and layering rather than telling a strong story, to me personally. The film opens with the line “Chaos is order yet undeciphered”, but when one deciphers the order, is there really much there?
Still, there’s plenty to enjoy. Villeneuve is clearly very skilled. I love the colour style of the film, and the cinematography and score both add a very oppressive, claustrophobic feeling, that really meshes with what the Gyllenhall is feeling. Very immersive.
I give it three organic blueberries, and a crushed spider.