Despite my best efforts at this past year’s Toronto International Film Festival, I missed out on seeing both of Denis Villeneuve’s new films: Prisoners and Enemy. Both had a fair amount of praise coming out of the festival and both not so secretly starred Jake Gyllenhaal. And although the Oscar talk has all but dissipated, Prisoners was a dark and brooding film that was almost a masterpiece. Enemy, on the other hand, I had to wait a bit longer to see. After watching it, however, I am a bit confused as to why I ever was excited to see it in the first place.
Adam Bell (Gyllenhaal) is a Toronto history professor who is going through the motions, searching for something more. He is intimate with his gorgeous girlfriend Mary (Mélanie Laurent), but their relationship too seems like a mere passing fling. On the suggestion of a colleague, he rents and watches a film, and casually notices a background actor that looks exactly like him. He researches the man more and realizes that Anthony St. Claire (also Gyllenhaal) is his exact double. When Adam decides to contact him, their lives begin to connect in strange and dark ways.
Mere minutes into Enemy, I wanted to stop watching it. It was not the enigmatic nature of the film, or the confusing symbolism and near nonsensical allusions it kept harping on. It wasn’t the near brilliant use of atmosphere that controls the film’s every movement either. It was the sheer fact that Villeneuve spent so much time crafting such a mysterious project, that he forgot to give the audience any reason to care about Adam’s plight. He just layers on the confusion and seems to hope that someone will catch on to the minutia of the dangling threads of answers he leaves hanging. But even then, the film offers no real answers to any of its burning questions – it merely hints and makes you ask more.
And after 90-minutes of confusion and frequent bouts of boredom, the entire audience seemed to rise up with a collective “What?!” when the film finally concluded.
Also rather irritating is how little Laurent and Sarah Gadon, who plays Anthony’s wife Helen, have to do in the film outside of being over sexualized objects. While Gadon gets to do a bit of acting and helps move the plot forward in often bizarre cases, Laurent literally spends the entire film either naked having sex with Gyllenhaal or dressed and leaving whatever location they were at together. I am not familiar with José Saramago’s original novel, but it seems rather strange that neither of these gifted actresses get to do much of anything in the film. The last third involves both of them heavily, but they serve such little point in the film that they could almost be cut out entirely.
But much like you might imagine, Gyllenhaal’s dual performance as both Adam and Anthony is nothing short of exceptional. He looks frequently confused and bewildered like he does in Prisoners (without nearly as much blinking thankfully), but there is a certain aura of maturity and power in his performances. Both characters are fully realized and very different from each other, despite their looking the exact same in every way. His increasing paranoia as both men is the real heart and soul of the film, helping to add to the building atmosphere.
Even at its most excruciating moments, Gyllenhaal still manages to really make something worthwhile out of his performance, even if the audience stops caring about what he is doing or why. I just wish he had the opportunity to have a bit more fun like Jesse Eisenberg did in TIFF’s other dual performance film, Richard Ayoade’s The Double. But despite both of these films being bleak and dystopic nightmares, Enemy is significantly less entertaining and not at all funny.
I hate to say it, but I was really disappointed by Enemy. The film had a lot of promise and certainly does its very best to look great, but it never really gives any reason to care, just increasing reasons to be confused. Gyllenhaal is awesome in the dual lead performances, but even he cannot make you care any deeper about what is going on or why. Some may chalk this up to simply not understanding or comprehending the deeper meanings behind the film, but I feel that watching it a second time, knowing all of the twists and turns, will still result in the exact same reaction. Hopefully Villeneuve will stick to more films like Prisoners in the future because Enemy is a total miss.
Enemy is a mysterious and strangely atmospheric thriller, but outside of an exceptional dual performance by Jake Gyllenhaal, its enigmatic and nonsensical nature offer very little reason to watch.