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What To Watch: Unpacking Secrets In The Thriller ‘Enemy’ (2013)

A minor masterpiece of plot and performances.

Enemy is a 2013 psychological thriller about a history professor who sees a man in a movie that looks exactly like him, leading him on a twisted journey of self-discovery.

There’s a certain comfort we as a species take in knowing that despite the almost untold numbers of people in the long history of the world–and as improbable as it seems–we are, as individuals, wholly unique. “I” am the only one of me. There is no one now nor ever will be the same. But what if that’s not true? It’s a mind-bender many have tackled, the idea that each of us might in fact have a doppelgänger long being source for great science fiction. With Enemy, based on the book The Double by José Saramago, that idea serves as only one possible interpretation in a film that challenges the viewer to consider much that is presented while leaving answers entirely ambiguous. Like a head-scratcher? Stretch them fingers.

THE STORY: “Chaos is order yet undeciphered,” so the film says as it unfolds. We see a man in a car as his mother speaks over the film of her disappointment in how lives. Then a mysterious image of a pregnant woman, whom we later learn is Helen (Sarah Gadon), sitting on a bed in the dark, looking into the camera. Next a man (Jake Gyllenhaal) enters a private, exclusive erotic show, sitting in the audience looking disturbed as women in states of undress prance along a stage where one of them opens a platter on the floor that contains a large tarantula, to which she seems ready to crush with a spiked heel. It’s a shivering start.

From there, we see Adam Bell (Gyllenhaal again) lecturing in front of a room with few students, speaking of the historical manipulation of those in power, and more so, its cyclical state. He is a weary, weak-looking educator, his students disinterested. He is a bored with most everything himself and so takes the advice of a colleague to rent and watch a film called Where There’s A Will There’s A Way, a movie he thinks Adam might like.

Enemy
Enemy, 2013 © E1 Films

In that movie, Adam makes a troubling discovery. In a bit part as a bellboy, he spots an actor who looks just like him. I mean exactly like him. He does some research and learns he’s had small roles in a couple of other titles and after watching them as well, becomes convinced something isn’t right. After making contact with the actor, whose name is Anthony Claire (also played by Gyllenhaal), the two meet and we see that though they are physically the same, including a scar on their abdomens, their personalities are opposite with Anthony an abrasive, harder-edged character, steady and confident, seeing in Adam not just a twin of sorts, but a possibility.

That comes in the form of Adam’s girlfriend Mary (Mélanie Laurent), a women with whom Adam is barely keeping hold of, they in a relationship clearly on the rocks. Wanting her sexually, Anthony finds works to impersonate Adam to try and sleep with Mary, while this scheme actually puts Adam in Anthony’s bed next to his wife, who seems to realize something is off, even as she literally embraces it. Twisty stuff.

Directed by Denis Villeneuve, whose recent Arrival earned high critical acclaim, Enemy is a far-more cryptic film, and less accessible, though that should not deter a look. Certainly, fans of Gyllenhaal hoping for a straight-forward thriller are going to be spun out, but for those who crave their cinema to ask larger questions, this will hit the spot like sledgehammer, a metaphorical journey that is entirely confounding and yet wrought with possibilities.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR: There’s not a frame in this movie that isn’t purposeful. Every image and line of dialogue is connected in subtle ways to Adam and Anthony via the women in their lives. To miss a moment or mishear a word might leave you a few clues shy in piecing it all together, though that’s not to say any of it is concrete. Still, there are some powerful hints as to what is happening.

Enemy
Enemy, 2013 © E1 Films

Notice the blackboard behind Adam as he lectures, and watch how on the first lecture there is kind of playbook to the theory of control and a string of terminology that defines it. Then see how it it changes on the second day and how only one repeated word echoes what is happening.

Enemy
Enemy, 2013 © E1 Films

Pay attention especially to Helen and the decisions she makes throughout. I’ll talk more about her in the next section, but she is crucial to it all. Mostly though, watch Gyllenhaal, who gives what is a remarkable turn in two roles. An actor who has always played better in muted parts, here he is a wonder playing variations of the same figure, and it’s the details that really matter, from the hunch of his shoulders to the twitch of his brow, he conveys an epic range of emotions with barely a word. He bleeds the two together is fantastic ways while keeping it so we are never sure we know who we are watching.

Enemy
Enemy, 2013 © E1 Films

Finally, there is a brief scene with the legendary Isabella Rossellini that is arguably the lynchpin to the entire production. Ask yourself: Who is she talking to? Why does she uses the words she does? Why are they different from the opening voiceover, and most importantly, is she telling the truth?

GREAT MOMENT: Helen is the key, at least in my own interpretation, and there is a chilling scene when Anthony and Andy have essentially switched places, as Anthony schemes, as mentioned, to get Mary in bed. How that plays out is itself a great moment, but as Andy works his way into Anthony’s home, toying with his own desire now that his appearance has stripped his inhibitions, he ends up in the bedroom with Helen. This plays out slowly and it’s important to watch her carefully. We don’t always see what she sees, but we know she sees something.

Enemy
Enemy, 2013 © E1 Films

We also know that Helen suspects Anthony of cheating on her, and more so that Helen has already seen Andy, so when she watches Andy now, who is pretending to be Anthony, undress and climb in bed, there is a look in her eyes that speaks volumes about what she might be thinking. And when she speaks, what she says is devastating. This is a woman who knows exactly what is happening. It is hugely significant.

THE SPIDER: A spider makes three appearances in the film, one at the start as mentioned, another in a dream-like sequence towering over the Toronto skyline, and once more in a shocking moment that I won’t reveal but is spellbinding for what it means and how Adam responds.

Enemy
Enemy, 2013 © E1 Films

The motif of a web and the traps it implies are everywhere, including the smashed window of a car Villeneuve lingers on with tantalizing urgency. These are themes that hint to much about what is going on in Adam and Anthony’s mind, and it’s important to consider the issue of infidelity, children, and the dreams or sacrifices one makes to keep or lose it all.

THE TALLY: With is sallow-yellow tinting and agonizing tension-filled, twitching string score by Daniel Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, Enemy is a curious experience from all angles, designed to raise questions and inspire debate. While it is layered with symbolism and meanings perhaps only those closest to the project could possibly glean, there are some great workable themes at play and with another terrific performance from Gyllenhaal, this is one to watch.

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