Is it bad form to open a review with a quote from someone else’s review? In an attempt to undermine my own word-mastery from the get-go, I bring you Peter Hartlaub’s synopsis, straight from the San Francisco Chronicle:
“Enemy is what might happen if someone let Terrence Malick make a Twilight Zone episode, with a quick rewrite by David Cronenberg.”
I read that shortly after I’d watched the film and, struck by how spot on it was, I felt it would only add insult to injury if I tried to nutshell the film myself. But the synopsis alone – while certainly nailing the tone of the film – doesn’t expand on the plot. That being said, I’m not sure if I can even do that.
Sitting alongside Under the Skin in the category of beautifully-shot, artfully-crafted musings on fear and isolation which don’t necessarily have a straightforward narrative for the viewer to latch onto, Enemy is a hypnotic and disturbing slice of sci-fi masquerading as a two-man character study. It just so happens that the two men in question are both played by Jake Gyllenhaal. And no, they’re not two different people – they’re exact duplicates.
Denis Villeneuve’s last effort, the surprisingly excellent Prisoners (surprising because it looked to be every inch the ITV serial crime drama, excellent because of its emotional wallop and stark, beige-hued beauty), is a far cry from Enemy. It’s still unreleased in this country, and it’s not too hard to see why – an incredibly difficult sell lies ahead for whoever picks it up, the film straddling several genres in an attempt to seemingly evade capture by any major international distributor (it’s only been released in Canada and Spain thus far). That said, with the aforementioned Under the Skin proving there is more than enough room at the inn for narratively disparate yet hypnotically beautiful cinema (by the end of its two-week run queues were forming out the door at my arthouse cinema of choice), it’s a shame no-one’s yet been willing to take a risk with Enemy. But for now, let’s deal with the plot (or at least the basics of it).
Gyllenhaal is Adam, a lonely yet over-sexed thirty-something; bookish, boorish and seemingly frustrated with his middle-class lot – university lecturing, looking overwrought, and boffing his beautiful but detached girlfriend (Melanie Laurent). But Gyllenhaal is also Anthony – a confident, sexually-aggressive actor whom Adam spies in a film recommended to him by a fellow lecturer. Rewinding the DVD (unsettlingly placed within the film at full frame Caché-style, an open invitation for the viewer to start questioning the reality of what they’re actually seeing) Adam Googles the actor to find his contact details, the culmination of which is a nervous phonecall when he realises they really ARE the same, right down to their voice. Pushing things a little further they both decide to meet up, only for Anthony to question if Adam has a scar on his chest. It’s never shown, but we assume from his reaction he does – his world understandably unravelling at rapid pace. It’s at this point that Enemy, for better or for worse, leaves itself open to a myriad interpretations.
Let’s go back to that opening quote for a minute. The Malick references are there, not least in the sweeping skyline shots juxtaposed with intimate close-ups on the duelling protagonists. Only in these skylines, instead of Malick-friendly ‘golden hour’ sunrises, we see gigantic freak-limbed spiders surveying the city denizens below (hence the Twilight Zone hollers). The Cronenberg touch can be found in both of the above, sci-fi and horror clashing with the domestic and the mundane; while Enemy could never be classed as a horror, it certainly waves a few red flags for the viewer to expect something shocking around the corner (let’s not spoil the ending too much, now). And for a third time in one review I’ll thrown in Under the Skin as the most recent of comparable features, a film that dares to raise more questions than it could ever possibly give answers to. Enemy needles the viewer into thinking about life, the universe and everything – but specifically aliens, the possibility that they could already be among us, and just what we might do if we knew about it (hang on, isn’t that the plot of John Carpenter’sThey Live…? Come to think of it, whatever happened to Rowdy Roddy Piper?).
It’s a far from perfect film but at a relatively brisk 90 minutes it certainly doesn’t ask too much of its captive audience, except for engagement in a post-film discussion in a public house of their choice. Which is sadly more than can be said for, say, Ayoade’s The Double, a film which deals with much the same subject matter but cleaves far too close to its Gilliam-aping style to really warrant an after-show debate. This is what makes Enemy such an interesting proposition – not that it’s an easy watch (it’s not), but I’d much rather a film of this type throw caution to the wind and go for broke than take the easy route. Far too often I’ve found myself skimming through my film collection wondering what I should watch – the blockbuster so I can switch my brain off, or something more demanding… I’ll be honest, most of the time neither option seems appealing (saturation point has a lot to answer for). But Enemy sets itself firmly in the latter camp. If you’re prepared for a twisted, malevolent, witch’s brew of a film, then you certainly won’t regret seeing it on the big screen when a distributor with some balls steps up to the plate.
Available on Region A Blu-Ray