Arguably one of the most important elements of psychological health is a person’s sense of identity. Our ability to view ourselves as distinct and unique individuals is paramount to maintaining a sane relationship with others as well as ourselves. Throughout time the initial goal of military training is to disrupt this crucial component of a person’s mind overriding the sense of self and replacing it with becoming a soldier driven solely by the commands of their superiors. A film that took a different approach is Enemy’, by filmmaker Denis Villeneuve. He doesn’t have the largest number of credits but the ones he has created demonstrate talent and a proclivity for the physiological thriller, not an easy genre to master, but Mr. Villeneuve is off to an impressive start. He will soon become a significant topic of discussion among the legion of science fiction fans when his latest movie, the much anticipated ‘Blade Runner 2049’is released. The fundamental theme of the story is the disconcerting effect a man experiences after discovering his doppelganger. Just imagine realizing that you are not unique, that you have seen someone that wasn’t an identical twin but another you. There is nothing new to an actor assuming a dual role such as this, but in many cases, the duplication is intended to invoke a humorous response. In this instance, the goal is to undermine the audience’s sense of individuality by affording them the opportunity to empathize with the protagonist fully. The choice of actor was understandably critical to effectively telling the story, in many ways more so than usual. The actor selected was one that had already worked with the director, Jake Gyllenhaal. For an actor that began his career with the lamentable ‘Bubble Boy,’ Mr. Gyllenhaal has distinguished himself by successfully assuming an incredible range of characters from action hero to an ordinary man facing extraordinary circumstances. He comes from a cinematic family growing up around the industry. He has matured in his craft and continued to strive to hone his talent.
One of the most important aspects of a psychological thriller is to upset the audience’s ability to maintain a degree of normalcy in the way the view the world. From the start of the movie the process of disturbing the viewers is in full force. We see a man as he is brought to a place to witness an unusual selection of performances. The first display is a naked woman about to crush a live tarantula under her foot clad in stiletto platform shoes. Nearby, a pregnant woman sits on display for the amusement of the onlookers. While such fetish activity is readily available online, there is an apparent perturbing effect to watching an example in such a casual setting. The purpose of the opening sequence is often to establish the mood that carried throughout the rest of the movie. In this occurrence, that mood is decidedly dark. The audience is introduced to the central character; Adam Bell (Jake Gyllenhaal).Adam is a college professor of history in Toronto. He is a quiet, reserved man who embraces solitude and feels disconnected with both his job and personal life. On the recommendation of a colleague Adam rents a movie, ‘,’Where There's a Will there’s a Way,' a locally made independent film. Adam notices an actor that appears to be identical to him. Researching the film he finds the actor’s name is Daniel St. Claire but uses the stage name of Anthony Claire. After view the other two movies listed in the performer’s credits he arrives at an unsettling conclusion, the actor is a perfect physical match, he has evidence that his doppelgänger exists. Immediately Adam’s personality undergoes changes. His girlfriend, Mary (Mélanie Laurent) notices the difference in Adam’s behavior and becomes justifiably concerned. In a coincidence that somewhat stretches credulity but is required for the story to continue, Anthony lives sufficient close to Adam to be stalked. Adam takes his obsession to the extreme by visiting Anthony’s home and work. Everyone he encounters, including his prey’s pregnant wife, Helen (Sarah Gadon) are confused by him. There is a surreal feel imparted to the imagery imparting a dream-like feel to these encounters that are enhanced significantly by seemingly non-sequitur images such as the film’s most cryptic and noteworthy sequence, a giant spider skulking among the skyline of Toronto. There is a laudable contextual consistency with these images the fetish exhibition at the start going beyond the usual internal cohesiveness that is important to instill and maintain the disquieting feel that helps define the genre by taking on the function of further causing the audience to question what is represented. The meaning of the spider has been a point of controversy and discussion but not formally addressed by the filmmaker. The cast and crew were required to sign non-disclosure agreements about any information about the meaning of the spider motif. This is a film that will persist in your thoughts long after the closing credits.
Representing one of Mr. Gyllenhaal’s finest moments as he gives an intensely mesmerizing performance, or perhaps more accurately performances. The key to a dual role such as this is the details. Gyllenhaal brings such a nuanced performance that I cannot imagine any other actor matching it. The physical appearance of the two men might be identical, but their personalities are diametrically opposite. Adam is reserved and often disinterested while Anthony is raw and distinctively sexual. Gyllenhaal imparts subtle touches to each man the physically reinforces their emotional and psychological differences. The textual foundation this provided resonates with the masterful directorial style; there are repetitive patterns that permeate the film that would be severely degraded without a presentation of such distinction. The story, based on the novel by the late Nobel Prize-winning author José Saramago’s ‘The ‘Double,' would not be able to transfer to the screen without the ability demonstrated on both sides of the camera. Gyllenhaal was required to express differences that in the novel might require numerous pages to produce had to be accomplished within the real time constraints of the movie.
All too frequently a director that endeavors to utilize a visual leitmotif there is a tendency to be either too overt or so subtle that the audience would have difficulty in catching them. Mr. Villeneuve, along with his amazing cinematographer, Nicolas Bolduc, deftly navigates that fine line between the undesirable extremes. As previously noted the spider theme is at the very core of understanding and fully appreciating the story. There is little that can come across as overtly as a giant arachnid prowling the streets of Toronto. The use of these images was balanced skillfully by instances like a cobweb in the corner of the classroom where Adam teaches. Other clues that require the audience’s attention and dedication to the experience include the initials of the two men, ‘AB’ and ÁB’ respectively. The advantage to viewing this movie on Blu-ray is it is possible to pause, rewind and have as many viewing as necessary. Fortunately, the film is extraordinary, so you will gladly want to experience it several times.