When I saw the 2013 child abduction thriller Prisoners, it was out of desperation. It was September, and, at that point, 2013 had tanked. Hard. I missed going to the movies and looked for what’s new. I found Prisoners. It had good notices, and the consensus calling it a gripping hybrid of Zodiac and Se7en, so, why not? Thanks in large part to Roger Deakins’ amazing cinematography, the film wastes no time asserting its artistic ambitions. In the opening shots, we see the organic naturalism of a forest ambushed by chilliness, as though the world was so overcome with macabre atmospherics that we could see it exhale. It was clear that the (admittedly) generic plot was only a vessel and a disturbing look at the human soul was the cargo. The plot followed the typical missing girl narrative we’ve seen in countless episodes of Law and Order and CSI, and yet not a moment feels familiar. It can be said the film is allegory for the conflicts in the Middle East, the perils of theism, or a reflection on parenthood. It’s a complex and sophisticated work, and comparison to one of the very best directors alive is high praise, although incorrect. Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve is a directorial force of brilliant constitution, and Prisoners ended up becoming one of 2013’s most underrated films. It made my top ten. It’s with considerable sadness, then, that his second film that debuted at Toronto last year, Enemy, won’t come close.
Like Prisoners, Jake Gyllenhaal stars. Here, he plays two characters, both of them bearded. The first is a neurotic college professor who teaches history and to a nearly uninhabited class, and we don’t know if most students skip it or if they just didn’t bother signing up to begin with. It’s a sad image. His existence seems empty of frills and thrills, and even sex with his beautiful girlfriend, Mary (Mélanie Laurent), is banal. He drives an old worn-down car, the peak of pragmatic driving, and his entire life seems a living example of minimalism, only not the kind you read about in GQ. His apartment is barren — cold — and if it wasn’t so clean, it’s what my mom might call a dump. The first Jake is named Adam Bell. The second is named Anthony St. Claire. Aside from sharing the same voice and body, they couldn’t be more different. Anthony lives in a swanky high-rise with an angelic pregnant wife (Sarah Gadon), and he’s an actor. Or, he wants to be. We see him as a background extra in a film that has been recommended to Adam, and it’s that which alerts Adam to the eerie existence of his doppelgänger. So begins the plot. They take turns pursing eachother with unruly obsessiveness, and as their paths continue to cross, the stakes are raised.
Early in the film, Adam lectures to his students on patterns of dictatorship throughout history. He cites multiple ways to control the masses, from stamping out individual thought and creativity (does this mean Adam’s minimalist lifestyle makes him the victim of dictatorship?) to limiting education. Enemy is all about patterns. Some scenes are shown twice, sometimes identically and sometimes from a different vantage point, like moments suspended in time. Are these flashbacks that infest the cinematic language of the film, making them seem not like flashbacks but merely moments coexisting with the present? We don’t know, but we face the possibility that Enemy’s foundation —stylistic and physical — is inside the head of the protagonist(s). Enemy is a model of male psychology.
It’s true, certainly all is not what it seems. Enemy seems to follow the same dream logic of Lost Highway or Blue Velvet (the Lynch connection is accentuated by the casting of famous Lynch alumni Isabella Rossellini, who played a traumatized mother/sex slave in Blue Velvet, in a small part), and characters behave not according to the laws of human nature but to the twisted logic of Villeneuve’s perversity. Behavior is erratic and without clear cause, and characters coast through isolated spaces like a surrealist’s phantasm. Mary seems to enter and exit Adam’s life at random, and she has no character arc to offer an explanation. That is not part of Enemy’s construction. Any character that isn’t Adam or Anthony seem to take on all the dimensionality of the “visitors” in Solaris or the projections in Inception, and this may be a clue to dissecting the logic of the premise.
A huge city is the setting, and the film’s visuals consist of stylishly shot cramped spaces with many glamorized hallways and elaborate aerial photography, going from the big picture to the close-up with fragmented continuity. The city is suffocated in the sulfuric hue of yellow, and Villeneuve’s aptitude for singular imagery is as on display here as it was in Prisoners. If you watch for it, spiders are everywhere. There’s symbolic webbing on ties and in power cables. They overwhelm the mise-en-scène, and at more than one point a giant spider dominates the skyline. It’s a (literally) larger than life symbol that, if nothing else, is a signpost that at least part of Enemy is meant to be taken as metaphor. The trouble is metaphors appeal to the brain, and not to the senses; Enemy is frigid viewing.
For a symbol to carry meaning, it needs emotion. We need motivation to care. One of the all time great examples of this is the green light in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby. It represents hope, failure, and longing in one sweep of a lighthouse’s emerald glow. Enemy’s symbols are cerebral, but they never permeate downward. It’s a film without a soul- an intellectualized husk. Enemy has been compared to Christopher Nolan’s breakout film Memento, but, unlike Memento, Enemy doesn’t have a heart. This is ironic, since Memento, like many of Nolan’s films, is accused of suffering from a Kubrickian cold, where emotion is exchanged for brainy appeal. This is false. In Memento, Nolan forces the viewer into an uncomfortable reality of unknowingness, and to such a point where we’re disconnected from time. We’re displaced, plucked out of linear continuity, and planted in the realm of temporal abstraction. The film’s narrative builds on layers of meta complexity, and we have the feeling of being in control of our senses even when we can’t possibly account for them. But we know at the end of the maze we’ll find reality. In contrast, it’s entirely possible every moment of Enemy is a metaphor, which could be fine, but it doesn’t have an emotional anchor. This is the greatest stroke Nolan made for Memento: the shattered glass narrative was broken by trauma. The lead character’s wife was raped and murdered, and he wants revenge. Wouldn’t you?
Emotions are the breadcrumbs that bring us from the brain to the heart and back again, but Enemy fails to give us a reason to care. The fallout is severe, and Enemy risks becoming boring as a consequence. The characters are remote control puzzle pieces, and Villeneuve doesn’t have the courtesy to make them the corners. It’s a problem (for the film) that I’ve gotten more than a thousand words into this review without acknowledging Enemy is meant to be a psychological thriller. It isn’t thrilling, and I can’t imagine what was supposed to be. When Adam and Anthony meet, they react badly, and threats are made. They swap turns stalking the other, mutually disturbed and entranced a seemingly supernatural twin can exist, but the film never creates stakes or any sense of danger. We see the strings of Villeneuve’s puppetry too well for any credible menace, so as voices are raised and threats are exchanged, we just see his fingers plucking at the Gyllenhaals to squawk. I can’t care for characters that aren’t characters. The only reading for Enemy I like, one that’s made the film grow in my mind instead of shrink, is that the film doesn’t have any humanity because Adam and Anthony are searching for their own. As a result, Enemy has grown retroactively in my mind, but I wish the film didn’t hold contempt for the viewer. Luckily, the score is suitably off-putting, and, in conjunction with the visuals and off-kilter performances, the atmosphere captures your attention while you put the pieces together. The ambition is impressive, but once you figure out the puzzle, and I did by the halfway point, what’s left?
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