Review: Enemy (2013)

The feeling when you’re in the hands of a director who knows what they’re doing.

Maybe it says something about me that i have not the temperament to just enjoy something that isn’t spelt out, or to try to work it out for myself, or to let questions hang when answers (or at least blogger theories) are out there. As soon as I got to the end of Enemy, Google turned up posts about “the scariest final scene ever” or something to that effect. The interpretations I read online were interesting and certainly helped me to appreciate the movie on an added level or two, but because they’re the opinions of others, and came after my own watching of the film, I won’t go into them here. Instead I can talk about what I enjoyed about the film before I learned some alleged answers.

Firstly: there is nothing more enjoyable, movie viewing-wise, than discovering you’re in the hands of a filmmaker who knows what they’re doing. It’s a feeling that descends, sometimes slowly, sometimes immediately; it settles somewhere behind the base of the skull, once you begin to look past often misleading signs of “quality” (famous actors, slick cinematography, production values) and realise those things are there to support, not substitute for, something expert, inventive and interesting. This was my third time feeling this with director Denis Villeneuve – the first being Incendies, which… look: go into that one knowing nothing, and be prepared to be devastated; the second I’ll come to shortly.

Buttons are being deliberately pushed, tropes specifically referenced, and it’s all spoken in a language which, it quickly emerges, is all its own, with all sorts of careful, thoughtful little details

I had no idea what was going on for much of Enemy. My brain was throwing up various, often dissonant interpretations and readings of the images and sequences playing out before me, ideas informed as much by what I’d seen in other movies (the often reductive “I’ve seen this before” pigeonholing tendency) as by what I was seeing in this one. It was easy to call it “just” Hitchcock, or “just” Fight Club – by which I meant, someone merely ripping off other things for lack of ideas or artistry of their own – and then that “No wait – this guy knows what he’s doing” feeling descended upon me and settled. Enemy does indeed make those references, but also does so much more: it doesn’t pretend you’ve never seen those movies; it assumes you’ve absorbed them and are ready for new ideas which use your understanding of those films as building blocks. It’s not postmodern, but it is assuming literacy. Buttons are being deliberately pushed, tropes specifically referenced, and it’s all spoken in a language which, it quickly emerges, is all its own, with all sorts of careful, thoughtful little details. I began to take pleasure in the cognitive dissonance between all the different interpretations and understandings my brain was rapid firing off as I watched – and I began to suspect that this was exactly what the film maker was after.

I can point to specific things – beautiful little details in Jake Gyllenhall‘s performance (more subtle / less distracting eye-acting than his blinking in his other collaboration with Villeneuve, Prisoners); Roger Deakins‘ ever-stunning cinematography (it’s the combo of him and Villeneuve that made me watch this, in anticipation of their upcoming sequel to Blade Runner); or the scene with his wife, with her tearful plea: “I think you do know”. This may have been the scene that sealed the deal on this movie for me. It was the fork in the film’s narrative: from this point on, the film would have to go down one of two paths – and, while both pointed to familiar stories I had little interest in watching again (conspiracy theory / alien invasion, or split personality), I realised I was in anyway; furthermore, I realised the only reason I wouldn’t want to see either story told again is not because of the stories themselves, but because I’d seen them told so badly so many times before. I’ve surely said this elsewhere in this archive, but I don’t care what the story being told is if it’s told well. Once I realised I was in the hands of a properly filmic storyteller, I was in – and, even after getting to the end with more questions than answers, they’d been raised by experiencing a profound understanding of filmic language at work.