Enemy is a disturbing, surreal meditation on the nature of identity, depression, and the need to escape. It’s a tense film, but the tension comes from its deliberative, cerebral pace. It’s also decidedly odd.
Adam Bell is a shuffling, rumpled yet strangely handsome mess, played by Jake Gyllenhaal. He is a history professor mired in routine. He lectures, eats, has desultory sex with his girlfriend, grades papers, rinse, wash, repeat. And repeat. And repeat.
One day, on advice from a colleague, he rents a film. “Something cheerful,” he requests, proving he is aware of the state he’s in. In that romantic comedy, he discovers a background actor that looks exactly like him. This fills him with excitement and purpose, as well as dread and fear—he needs to meet this man, his double.
The actor (also Gyllenhaal) is also discontented. With a stalled career and a pregnant wife, he spends as much time as he can out of the apartment. He also frequents a surreal sex club located in the basement of his building, (The zoning laws must have been murder.) Meanwhile, Anthony’s wife, Helen, seeks out Adam and realizes how much nicer and gentler he is than her callow, immature husband.
The film digs deep into the character’s discontent and, subsequently, the viewer’s as well. Who, at some point in their life, didn’t feel envious of another person’s life? Who hasn’t wished their partner was a little more this and a little less that. What if you found someone who looked exactly like you and whose life seemed freer than the constrictive one you believed yourself living in? Greener grass and all that.
The whole piece takes place in a sickly hazy Toronto. Enemy is filmed through a yellow filter, making everyone look sallow and desultory. The architecture is imposing and oppressive and accentuates the characters’ loneliness and the urban ennui. I’m sure, in actuality, Toronto is a lovely place, but I wouldn’t want to visit the city depicted here.
Enemy feels very Cronenbergian (if that’s not actually an adjective, it should be). The pace is similar to his films of the late ’80’s, but there is a discernible difference in approach. While David Cronenberg physicalized the psychological damage of his characters, Denis Villeneuve externalizes the whole shebang. It’s as if the entire city is a giant melancholic spider web (and actually may be). And unlike the clinical Cronenberg, we actually feel for and identify with Enemy’s characters.
There are plenty of surreal moments and red herrings that may or may not explain what’s going on. It’s kind of like reading an Encyclopedia Brown written by a surrealist, but a really subtle one. A mystery remains tantalizingly unexplained until it is very physically realized in the last frame. Which won’t make any sense until a few days later, and even then….
Gyllenhaal does a wonderful job differentiating his two roles, cleanly and passionately drawing the arc of his performances, so we understand why both Adam and Anthony act in the somewhat selfish way they do. In a fine performance, Sarah Gadon as Helen portrays someone who is deceptively fragile. She is also looking for something new and when her opportunity for change arises, well, that scene is perhaps my favorite.
I am recommending Enemy quite highly to anyone who likes disturbing, evenly paced psychological thrillers, in particular if you enjoy a touch of the surreal and horror. For, in essence, Enemy is a horror film. A creepily effective one.