One Jake Gyllenhaal simply isn’t enough

March 20, 2014


What would you do if you met someone who looked just like you? No, exactly like you? That’s the question the film Enemy asks us, to no clear conclusion.

Enemy tells the story of two men: a college professor and a small-time actor—both played by Jake Gyllenhaal. The film starts with the former, Adam, as he trudges through his mundane existence, giving dry academic lectures about war and chaos, until he notices his double, Anthony, in the background of a movie.

Instead of brushing it off as a weird coincidence, Adam becomes obsessed with finding his look-alike, and discovers there’s more to this connection than an uncanny resemblance. The film goes forward from there, concluding in a baffling ending that should not be spoiled if only to preserve the shock value.

Gyllenhaal does good work in his double lead performance, which is ultimately the pillar upon which the entire film rests. His characters are clearly contrasted, and have distinct enough personalities that they can easily be told apart. He manages both the passive and nervous Adam and the maverick Anthony without a single false note. Gyllenhaal is continuously proving himself to be one of the most reliable stars in Hollywood—following excellent turns in 2012’s End of Watch and last year’s Prisoners, his performance in Enemy continues to impress.

The film is also a triumph of setting a mood. The story is set in a jaundiced Toronto: a completely de-glamorized image of an otherwise great city. Director Denis Villeneuve includes many shots of the city under repair, be it road work or skyscraper maintenance, and shuns the image of the city as a well-oiled machine, instead showing it as decrepit. He also has a penchant for disorienting shots of buildings in odd angles that incite vertigo. It’s all wickedly and excellently manipulative, and comes together to give a feeling of discomfort necessary for the strange and confusing story the film wants to tell.

The story, however, is where the film falls flat. The characters’ motivations are never clear (why is Adam so consumingly fascinated with his apparent doppelganger?), there are a lot of confusing motifs (what’s the deal with the tarantulas?), and the tale never comes together in a meaningful way—certainly not with its final shot being as absurd as it is. Even apparent themes of gender relations and ego versus id get lost in the distracting twists. The film is well-executed on a technical level, and many scenes—especially the ending—are hard to forget, but it just doesn’t feel like it adds up to anything. You can’t fault a film just for being difficult to understand, of course, but you can certainly fault it for being overly obtuse.

Villeneuve and Gyllenhaal’s last collaboration—Prisoners­—was also a film noted for having a difficult and sort of sloppy concept but excellent execution. The difference between the two is that Prisoners’ execution by its whole cast and crew elevated what could have been a really uninteresting film, and Enemy’s ridiculous and pseudo-intellectual story dragged down an otherwise well-acted and capably crafted film. It’s possible a second viewing could make the film’s goals somewhat clearer, but the first viewing fails to convince that it’s worth the effort.

The film opens with a quote: “Chaos is merely order waiting to be deciphered.” In retrospect, it sounds like a challenge. Could it be that this film is secretly really meaningful, but simply too dense to grasp in one sitting, like a good David Lynch film? That seems to be a common conclusion, but I think that’s giving it too much credit. After all, daring your audience to make sense of your film is something Lynch would never dream of doing.

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