I decided to watch the Canadian psychological thriller ENEMY at the eve of Halloween, clueless of its horrifying ending. I’m not bitten by arachnophobia nor haunted by a dubious doppelganger, but the film eerily summons the alarming score of fear. But what is it in ENEMY to fear about? The haunting imagery of eight-legged freaks? The mind-boggling narrative that lingers on the unconsciousness? Or in the case of Jake Gyllenhaal’s characters, the unpredictability of the present that distorts the reality of yesterday and tomorrow? A curious roundabout of identity, conclusion, and meaning, ENEMY is an enigmatic case of metaphysical cinema – a circumferential adventure whose only way out is in… and you just can’t easily recover from it.
It was only upon the film recommendation of a colleague when history professor Adam Bell discovered Anthony Claire, a small-time actor who eerily resembles him; the conclusion too bizarre that they are twins separated from birth. Things don’t go decidedly planned after the two decided to meet as their obsession towards each other ends grimly. Anthony apparently died in a car crash with Adam’s girlfriend whom he took to a spoiled romantic getaway while Adam stood calmly (and knowingly) in front of a giant spider which was Anthony’s pregnant wife – a completely startling revelation that adds to the film’s many mysteries. ENEMY isn’t just a simple case of twists and turns that leads to a finite finish. Director Denis Villeneuve’s arcane thriller has a life of its own, following its own order of existence as warned by the film’s opening line, “Chaos is ordered yet undeciphered.” The quote makes sense as ENEMY left viewers grappling on what exactly happened to Adam and Anthony and how the erotica show (at the beginning) and the monster show (in the end) were connected. Aside from its tangling cinematic course, the most important question remains undeciphered: what is ENEMY all about?
Slowly offering clues about Gyllenhaal’s characters, ENEMY baffles about the true nature of Adam/Anthony, the narrative sequence, and its disturbing symbolism. At the middle of the film, I was caught up with the idea that Adam/Anthony could be suffering from split personality disorder, although that felt like a ruse since ENEMY seemed slated to bigger themes. The spiders (shown in three different sizes and occasions) further complicate the already obscure picture as ominous metaphors, which according to Slate could refer to an allegory used by Jose Sarmago, author of The Double from which the film is loosely adapted. Among the many theories proffered online is my guess that Anthony, who was cheating his pregnant wife, survived the car crash but ended up having amnesia, leading him to forget his earlier career and become a history professor (Adam) until he saw himself in the film that flushed him to an existential crisis. But the small details don’t quite add up. There’s a missing link in transferring from acting to teaching history (which is ironic if Adam/Anthony did have amnesia) and the scar near the abdomen is too implausible to be the only remnant of the car crash. If anything ENEMY validates aside from Gyllenhaal’s riveting portrayal and Villeneuve’s precise direction is the uncanny ability to disturb, daze and dare viewers to think beyond their comfort zones. It’s one of the frustratingly mindf— movies of recent memory that makes ENEMY darkly playful. It secretly guffaws on being smarter than everyone in the room. No one can fully comprehend what the film is, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth the try.
Jake Gyllenhaal as history professor Adam Bell.
The beginning of the film introduces the concept of a totalitarian government which has full control of what it wants to tell and share to its people and how it does so. In such manner, the government limits the information that the citizens have the right to know, which is also subject to the medium used, for instance, entertainment (by the Romans) and education (which Adam represents). Maybe that’s the same approach ENEMY is treating its viewers; it doesn’t fully disclose the nature of its characters, thus the dangling web of mysteries. But unlike the Romans or the fascism (which the spiders are said to symbolize), ENEMY doesn’t spoon-feed the facts but allows us to freely discuss and interpret the chaos it left. The engrossing outcome is the opposite of the rigidness in the undemocratic authority mentioned in the film. By revealing few, viewers tend to wonder more. Contrary to the totalitarians and fascists, ENEMY doesn’t underestimate the intelligence of its viewers, though it may confound at first. It’s one of the recent challenging films not for popcorn viewing… and who else will watch it but you?
Digressing giant spiders, governments and Gyllenhaals, who is the enemy in ENEMY? Anthony seemed more antagonistic than Adam but what if the title refers not to an evil doppelganger but to his biggest enemy… himself? Past the theories of Adam/Anthony’s existence, what if he was haunted by guilt of having a mistress or his failed acting career? From the moment the twins met, ENEMY examines the consequences of one’s actions and how they stray beyond control. If Adam did not try to look for his apparent double, he wouldn’t trap himself to a deceitful web with his sanity on the line. I found more sympathy in Adam than Anthony but his final shot makes me question everything I had known about him prior… His discerning calmness is unnerving along with the terrified giant spider in front of him. Maybe I relied at the wrong perspective. Maybe what Adam had known all along – which is unknown to the viewers – is what exactly to be feared about.