When Adam (Gyllenhaal) rents a movie he finds his reality challenged and perhaps even threatened. An actor in the film looks exactly like him and Adam feels the need to investigate.
Jake Gyllenhaal is an actor that often picks intriguing character based roles. There was the obvious exception of Prince of Persia, but other than that Gyllenhaal’s career has been as diverse as it has been varied. From his early role in Donnie Darko, through Brokeback Mountain, to his more recent work in Zodiac, Prisoners and End of Watch, the actor has rarely put a foot wrong.
Enemy is his most recent film release and it sees him rejoin Dennis Villeneuve (Prisoners) in what’s a very baffling story. Part Kafkaesque in tone and part identity thriller, Enemy is a film adapted from author Jose Saramago’s novel The Double. Gyllenhaal stars in both the roles of a man and his double.
We’ve already seen that Gyllenhaal has considerable cache and the same can be said for Canadian director Villeneuve. His film, Prisoners was a brooding exploration of a man (Hugh Jackman) who will stop at nothing to find his missing child. Prisoners was a heavy hitting story, set in a detailed Pennsylvania back water. Then there was Villeneuve’s Incendies, which focused on the horrors of war in a nameless, but realistic Middle Eastern setting.
Enemy exists in a surreal world
The director’s work has been grounded in realism and often set far from his Canadian home. His work has been concerned with larger, perhaps societal issues. Enemy however differs from this formula and is less grounded in reality. The film is set in Canada and its focus is much less defined as the narrative exists somewhere within the protagonists increasingly subjective reality.
Doubles are often used as a narrative trope to evoke the notion of the fantastical, of a world that doesn’t have the same boundaries as our own. Enemy is far removed from the gritty realism of Villeneuve’s earlier films but is no less weighty and just as compelling. It’s a much shorter film than the directors other work (coming in at a mere 90 minutes) and visually it’s much less impressive. Enemy feels like a whimsical story and one that delves into the psyche of one man with very little in the way of an explanation.
This is experimental filmmaking and the surreal setting is depicted carefully through tinted camera lenses. The whole film seems to exist in some sort of parallel modern world that looks like our seventies. The palette is dusty, yellowed, and this sepia tint ages the film but to an ill-defined era. The narrative is increasingly postmodern and the confusion in the characters understanding of the world is reflected in the audiences.
Just like everyone else
The setting is that of a large, seemingly anonymous city. Adam Bell, the protagonist, lives in a flat in a large drab tower block. His life looks very much like everyone else’s and there’s little that marks him out. He teaches history at a university and his first discussion with bored students is on the idea of totalitarian states and the notion of things arriving in twos.
This obvious prolepsis is subtly done and in fact Adam’s teaching career has little to do with the story. Instead it establishes him as a character. His perspective is one of distance and he analyses history in an academic manner. This distance is also reflected in his day-to-day life and his interactions with his girlfriend. Adam is a man who struggles to connect with reality and the soundtrack works with him to convey this. The music is ominous and pulsating – there’s no clearly defined melody – and it shows a complete lack of definition on the films part. This narrative could take place at any time and there’s nothing that grounds it to a world that we recognise.
This uneasy place could at first be read in terms of a realist perspective on Adam’s reality. He seems to be suffering from insomnia and time slips and has little meaning across the wider narrative of the film. Six months seem to disappear and the easiest way to judge the passing of time is by the length of Adam’s beard. Enemy utilises the unreliable narrator trope to great effect and it becomes increasingly difficult to trust anything seen on screen.
There also seems to be a strong male gaze in this film and the opening scene shows a group of men watching a sex show. Women in Enemy often just exist in the background or as a representation of jealous femininity. The whole film occurs in some sort of half-light, in an upside down world with difficult, perhaps non-existent truths. The homogenous cityscape has marked similarities to Spike Jonze’s Her but Enemy is its own film.
The lack of answers in Enemy may annoy some viewers but it’s Jake Gyllenhaal’s turn as both Adam and his double that make this film unique. Gyllenhaal, already a very talented actor, does exceptional work playing two men that are almost (but not quite) identical. He does it all through small mannerisms and facial ticks and he shows the differences between the two men more in terms of perspective than action. The idea that one is good and the other bad is constantly attacked and by the end of the film it’s hard to tell if either is really that different after all.
Lack of meaning
There’s a distinct lack of over arching meaning in Enemy and audiences will be left to fashion their own interpretation. Perhaps the most interesting part of the film however is the narrative suggestion that this is all about actors and the doubles they play. Enemy may well be thematically exploring the boundary that marks the public and private spheres of a character actor’s life – or it may be asking something else entirely.
It’s all a matter of perspective. Enemy is a challenging film, perhaps one that makes absolutely no sense, but there in lies the fun. It’s a film that will stick with you long after the credits roll with its complicated web of intrigue and questions on the nature of identity in an increasingly fractured world.