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Review: "Enemy" Pits Gyllenhaal Against Gyllenhaal

This review originally appeared in my column at Towleroad

Have you ever read Jose Saramago's "Blindness"? That genius novel, about a sudden epidemic that renders the whole world blind, is hugely unsettling in content. It's also experimental in form. No character is named, the two protagonists are only referred to as "The Doctor" and "The Doctor's Wife", and punctuation is so scarce that there's nothing to guide you; you have to feel your own way through the blocks of words. The film version in 2008, which starred Mark Ruffalo and Julianne Moore, was too traditional in execution and couldn't capture the mad confusion and haunting power of the book. I haven't read Saramago's novel "The Double" upon which the new film Enemy is based but no one is playing it safe in the transfer this time. This is the kind of movie that feels like a true transfer of surreal text to visuals.

When I attended the Toronto Film Festival last fall, I didn't know what to make of Denis Villeneuve's hallucinatory thriller, which is as far removed from his other recent mainstream thriller (Prisoners, reviewed) as it could be. As far as I can tell the new movie is about a university teacher (Jake Gyllenhaal) who, while absentmindedly watching a video at home, sees a movie actor (Jake Gyllenhaal) who looks exactly like him. His initial shock gives way to curiousity and then to obsession. Things only get weirder from there... 

At first all I could think of to describe the movie was other movies, jotting down this short description: 

Take Jake Gyllenhaal's endlessly curious puzzle-loving journalist in Zodiac and bring along that film's evocative cinematography and color palette. Split Jake in two with one version schlumpy and Adam Goldberg-like and the other cockier like Ryan Gosling on a motorbike. Mix in a disorienting trip to Eyes Wide Shut's plinking-soundtrack'ed 'sex party'. Plop the rest of the film down into four separate settings, Talent Agency and University and two Gyllenhaal Apartments and make sure that all of them are as nondescript and sterile as the stockbroker firm in American Psycho. Throw in a curveball with inexplicable out-of-time trips to a Video Rental Store. Add two glazy blonde love interests (Melanie Laurent and Sarah Gadon) who are both confusingly disappointed; You're sleeping with Gyllenhaal, and possibly even Gyllenhaals, ladies. Cheer the fuck up!"

But that's more like a flailing 'what is it?' cry than a useful take. It doesn't do Enemy justice since it's often so singular a film experience. This Kafkaesque confrontation between two men who are exactly the same, only not, is as propulsively compelling as it is offputting - for a film as crazy as this one, it's too glum-faced. But it's mercifully paced at a very tight 90 minutes and full of surprises and a perfect unthinkable ending. Which is why we're not going into plot descriptions. Not that descriptions of the plot are any way to understand this sort of thing.

Six months later I'm not sure I'm any closer to decoding Enemy, opening this weekend, and keep flashing back to a cameo from Isabella Rossellini as Jake Gyllenhaal's mother as if it's a rosetta stone. But which Jake Gyllenhaal is her son? I'm haunted worrying that there's no right answer. Enemy shapeshifts that way after you watch it. It's such a disorienting experience we may need Jake Gyllenhaal, the Zodiac-iteration, to help decode it.

Back to the movie theater, then, for a second helping of Jake Gyllenhaal, who's already doubled. That makes something like eight Jake Gyllenhaals but never complain about abundance.

Grade: B? B+?
Oscar Chances: Not that sort of a movie.   

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Reader Comments (4)

Nice review for a very confusing film. Like you, I'm not sure there is a right answer, though I too keep coming back to Isabella Rosselini's character.

Have you read the explanation on Slate about the film's totalitarian meaning? That article convinced me of the meaning of the spider imagery, but it does nothing to solve the conundrum of who's who.

The film informs is that "Chaos is order yet undeciphered." To ensure that it makes its point, perhaps the film is ok with being indecipherable.

March 16, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterEvan

Wait, what? This only opened on *ONE* screen, and that screen was the Angelika? I had no idea. I saw it on a lark, just wanting to see something last night and happening to be a block away from the Angelika. It was extra unsettling what with the constant train rumbles one always hears underneath that theater. They totally added atmosphere.

I hated the first half but was kind of in love with it by the end when it seemed, to me, to develop more of a sense of humor about itself and hit its own unique stride. I basically agree with your grade(s), and could never think of it as a *great* film after the first half seemed so plodding and overly portentous. But I ended up thoroughly enjoying it.

You think the Jake and the cinematography have no chance? They'd be my picks for major year-end discussion… the score I'm sort of torn on; it especially was super annoying for the first half but then rather brilliant toward the end.

March 16, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAdam Keller

your review made me VERY curious to see the movie.

March 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterIvonne

What a strange film! All the way through, I had to keep reminding myself that this WASN'T a David Cronenberg film. I didn't know that Denis Villeneuve had this in him.

I'm not quite sure that Rossellini is the key to understanding the story...but, then, maybe there are two of her, i.e. the one we met in that one scene and the other who phones and leaves voicemail messages.

And, finally, I really don't understand the last scene.

March 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBill_the_Bear

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