Film Review – Enemy



There’s a moment early on when history teacher Adam Bell (Jake Gyllenhaal) is watching a movie in his apartment alone. His face is draped in apathy. Having rented the movie at the suggestion of a coworker, Adam seems to exude really little interest beyond it being something to do. As a scene in the movie shows the main actress walking across the screen, an extra behind her in the background turns towards the camera. We, and Adam, catch his face for a moment. And it’s in that moment that everything begins. There’s a new look that comes over Adam’s face that pretty much remains there until the end. It’s in this look that so much of writer/director Dennis Villeneuve‘s film Enemy hangs.

A lot can be said in a look. It can tell you far more than words can, and it can also tell you absolutely nothing. So when Adam stares in that brooding way that resembles almost the emotion of terror, it’s not quite apparent why he’s so freaked about seeing a person who looks like him. Chances are likely that there’s at least one person who exists that resembles how each of us looks. I’ve been mistaken for other people, and have had other people tell me they’ve seen my doppelganger. I’ve seen my doppelganger in a photo drinking with Britney Spears. Turns out it was some guy who actually looks nothing like me. But in that photo, at that angle, with a bottle of beer at his lips, it was a bit surreal how much this guy looked like me. He wasn’t me though, and I knew that. What’s missing in the translation from the source material, the novel The Double by José Saramago, is how this extra in this film isn’t just someone who looks like Adam, to Adam that person is him.

Enemy Movie Still 1

A novel of course provides explanation for character motivation in a way movies can’t, but that doesn’t mean the movie is incapable of providing its own motivation. The story follows Adam as he drifts through his life, not quite fully connecting with anything, from his girlfriend Mary (Melanie Laurent), to the classes he teaches. After he watches the movie his coworker tells him about and discovers the double of himself is an actor, Adam decides he needs to find this person and meet him. From this point on Adam begins a strange investigation that leads him to not only meeting his double, Anthony St. Claire, but to blurring the lines of who lives whose life. The question of what is self is very much at the forefront of both the novel and the movie. But the approach and use of medium is what makes all the difference.

Villeneuve’s movie is born out of the DNA of writer/director David Lynch. Long stretches of eerie quiet are infrequently truncated with loud moments that attempt to dredge up terror out of nothingness. The problem in play here is not so much the execution, but the purpose of the execution. When Adam discovers his other self and things suddenly get intense to the point of terror, it feels out of place. It’s not necessarily a moment deserving of the music and bravado that informs us of the terror Adam feels. What comes out of this is a lot of brow furrowing and deep brooding to moody synths, set against sterile earth tones.

Enemy Movie Still 2

Beginning with a quote from Saramgo’s novel about chaos being order yet undeciphered, Enemy wears its pretension as a suit. This actually works to benefit the movie as its major saving grace is honesty in its intentions to let you know that questions about identity and self are important. Not only important, but when confronted, horrifying. The benefit here would’ve been if the movie also expounded on the reason for that horror. However, all good stories are about more than their premise. There’s what a story’s about, and then there’s what the story is about, and Villeneuve crafts a webbed metaphor for oppression and totalitarianism that weaves either through a surface interpretation, or one symbolic of the psychology of individualism, depending on your perspective. His use of visual metaphor is successful in both its startling presentation and its deeper meaning, all of which is exemplified in the final shots before cutting to credits.

Gyllenhaal is reserved and nervous as Adam, and charismatic and charming as Anthony. His slip between the two characters is effortless and understated, which works to the movie’s advantage. Unfortunately Sarah Gadon and especially Melanie Laurnet are sorely underused, which is most apparent after pretty much every scene with Gadon, whose performance of being both intrigued and scared matches in understated reserve to that of Gyllenhaal’s, holding up a movie that would otherwise sink under the weight of Gyllenhaal’s melancholy. As with his previously released film Prisoners, Villeneuve both impresses and confounds me to a point of frustration and enjoyment; an experience that at least brings me back a second time for further examination.



Benjamin Nason is a writer, film-maker and critic from the Pacific Northwest, where he lives with his cat Lulu.

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