Enemy Explained

Hitchcock’s “you’ve got the wrong man” films seem to have been his outlet to describe how he saw people, guided not by ambitions but by other people’s expectations of them. To do it, he always cast someone graciously likable, a star in the sense that they made people seem like a good idea (Cary Grant and James Stewart were the ideas to swoon for).

Denis Villeneuve makes Enemy like Hitchcock taken to a further degree, at which we all live our lives in a “you’ve got the wrong man” film, accused of being someone else for so long that we become that person. Jake Gyllenhaal plays the wrong man, but in the sense that he mistakes himself for someone else, and ends up being that person all along. No matter what he does, Gyllenhaal (whom we might call ungraciously likable to begin with) remains responsible for his dusky worldview. The people he plays would all plead that we’ve got the wrong man, but that’s just because they haven’t figured out who Jake Gyllenhaal is yet. They find out in Enemy, and that’s just the beginning of what makes it creepy. Enemy is about individual expression in the most literal terms: conflicting actions and appearances collide into the truth of one individual. And that’s the only person “enemy” could refer to: himself.

“It’s all about control,” says schoolteacher Adam Bell (Gyllenhaal), “Every dictatorship has one obsession and that’s it.” Destroying individual expression is how they get it. In the breakroom, a colleague gives Bell the nicety readiness quiz we’ve all heard a thousand times: what’s your favorite color, favorite movie, favorite hobby? Bell has no preferences. He doesn’t really watch movies, and we get the impression it’s not because he doesn’t like them but because he can’t bring himself to choose one. When given suggestions, he watches them all like propaganda purporting someone else’s life. He gets nothing from them.

When he sees himself in one of the films as an actor named Anthony St. Claire (also Gyllenhaal), he begins obsessing over him, though he doesn’t seem to compare himself to him. Enemy depicts obsession as though it can be separated from envy. Adam (let’s call him “Teacher Jake” to save your eyes from rampant scrolling) has an animalistic curiosity for Anthony (“Actor Jake”), like a dog that sees itself in the mirror. He can’t identify the reflection as himself, but he also can’t figure out how they’re different. Enemy, in the literal sense, consists of a lot of two identical images staring at each other and occasionally barking. The effects are always convincing, and the mood of the film never lets up a feeling of terrific unease (someone described it to me as a feature-length version of the seconds leading up to a jump-scare that never happens and I think that’s fitting). Enemy covers all the literal ways that a movie can intrigue you, minimalizing its haunting score, pushing every anxiety behind the eyes of an actor who has proved over and over again that he can take it. But this isn’t a movie you can watch only in the literal.

The existence of Actor Jake doesn’t rob Teacher Jake of his individuality, as it should, but his lack of envy does. If Teacher Jake had enough sense of self to be jealous of his twin, he could break the pattern that controls his life: the fact that human goals like sex and family and achievement are frightening unknowns to him. When he sees a version of himself that has them, he discovers how little they mean to him even and especially if he ever achieved them. This frees his character from a very cinematic limitation: the concept that the few events and traits we see are all there is. Enemy gives us Jake in two forms to show us that his shortcomings are not based on his experiences but on his psychology. No matter how he has had lived his life (the tenses are getting weird!), the enigma of his own happiness makes gratification unknown to him. Teacher Jake is bad in bed and Actor Jake is unfaithful to his pregnant wife. It makes that wife (Sarah Gadon) suspicious of both Jakes for not being the authentic Jake, which may not actually exist. Both are governed by the same curious apathy to take charge of their identity without acting on it. Enemy is about dictatorship and control, and about it no less than Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It takes it even further because there aren’t really “two” Jakes: there’s one portrayed in two aspects. This puts the alien regime in Enemy on the inside; in a brisk but enclosing 90 minutes, Villeneuve has portrayed no less than the dictatorship of the self.

In Invasion of the Body Snatchers, aliens systematically replace humans with clones. But those clones don’t erect a new civilization: they end up being paper-pushers staring at their shoes and gabbing about election cycles. You won’t catch a newborn pod person taking human anatomy for a spin. Why do the aliens do it if they take no pleasure from it? The fear in that film (which is ostensibly about the intellectual threat of Communism) is not that we will be captured and turned into mindless aliens, but that if we were, we might not be able to tell the difference. Enemy propels this fear into the Information Age with an ominous truth: now, such invasions happen every day. They are self-governed.

Enemy’s pivotal moment is when the two Jakes switch places, like if “The Prince and the Pauper” took place in a sex dungeon. Actor Jake has sex with Teacher Jake’s girlfriend (Mélanie Laurent), who can’t tell them apart without evidence. Earlier, Teacher Jake himself woke her up and tried to rape her, because he was ready to have sex and doesn’t really understand it. Now he’s in Actor Jake’s house, with a pregnant wife, barely even resentful that Actor Jake stole his life, like he didn’t really identify with it anyway. It’s worse than if the switch was between two paupers: it’s like it doesn’t matter which is which to begin with. When he looks at Helen, he fears and mythologizes her. He senses her suspicion and sees her, only as near as he can understand her.

So let’s talk about spiders.

The sight of spiders throughout Enemy triggers emotional development only in the audience; they yield the secrets of Jake’s inner turmoil, though not to himself. He’s suspicious of women, like they all belong to some unknowable cult, and having sex with them makes him culpable in his own suffering. As women become more fertile in Enemy, which should make the Jakes care for them more, they become more unapproachable and unknown to him. His wife is pregnant and her sensuality makes him distant and suspicious of her, as though she was the one cheating (the movie tells us this by having the Jakes switch places: now it really is someone else’s baby, despite still being his). Having sex with her seems like something he has to do, despite taking no pleasure from it. A series of Kafka-esque nightmares (these are dreams in the movie’s reality but no less significant than action) lead us to Jake’s wary psychology, if not to the film’s “point,” which it may not have.

A woman walks slowly towards him with a spider’s face, and passes without acknowledging him. A prostitute lifts a serving tray to reveal a tarantula, and hovers her foot over it while leery men watch with starving eyes (this may really happen). In another, a spider walks over a city with tentative omnipotence (it seems to be made of scaffolding and dust). There are more, even some that made my hindbrain tingle; a monkey screamed inside me at several points during Enemy. If I’m being honest, I really, really don’t like spiders. I can’t believe that’s finally an advantage.

Spiders seem to be in power in Jakes’ life. This leads some viewers to believe they’re real, which would make Enemy viable, if doubtful science fiction. But the fantasy of these images gives them their real power: they are the thoughts that force Jake into a pattern of identity-lessness. They lead him to control so much of his life that he can’t trust any of it. He feels trapped by his suspicions, his obsession with underachieving, his inability to understand and love women (one of which has rage-sex in a broken relationship and the other who distantly hates carrying the child of a bad husband). These anxieties take the form of spiders. (Even the casting provides a clue: Isabella Rossellini enters as Jake’s overbearing mother and brings some of Blue Velvet’s sexual deviancy with her.)

The forces that control Jakes’ life do so from within his psychology. And when he makes certain discoveries, notice (you will know the moment) that his personal monster doesn’t attack him but cowers from him. I’m sure you’ve felt this with a spider yourself: the power to bully something that you can’t really conquer. That’s Jake with the women in his life. He looks at it unsurprised, like he understands the obsessions he can’t do anything about. The film begins with him watching lesbian sex in a club filled with leery men and spiders and this may occur again after the film is over, after he confronts himself by becoming Actor Jake and surrendering to his pattern of fearful self-control. Enemy cannot be a film about change: it is about the changelessness that makes us perfect agents of our own misery. And perfect subjects for preservation in the movies.

Perhaps Enemy, like Mulholland Drive, has less to say about its players and more to say about films themselves. An actor has to negotiate a crisis similar to Jake’s every time he puts his personality aside to play into someone else’s anxieties and expectations, while knowing that the only way to make them authentic is to make them his own. In that sense, you always have the wrong man in every film you watch. But the crisis comes from the fact that the effect doesn’t work until the man believes he’s the right one. Gyllenhaal may be the first person to play both at once. Villeneuve inherits Hitchcock’s dusky crown with Enemy (Shyamalan has been vying for it for years), a film which can become clearer only as it becomes less about a double performance in a pseudo-noir, and more about cinema. It sets out to be a mystery about a man’s double life. It may end as nothing less than the fantasy of moviemaking itself.


Image is a screenshot from the film.

Cast & Crew

Denis Villeneuve

Javier Gullón (screenplay)

José Saramago (book)

Adam Bell/Anthony Claire Jake Gyllenhaal
Mary Mélanie Laurent
Helen Claire Sarah Gadon
Mother Isabella Rossellini

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