It’s been a long year, friends. We are near its conclusion and we all hope you’re staying sane, safe and well out there. To even the most casual Midwest Film Journal reader, it will be no surprise that we love puns around here almost as much as we love thoughtful, entertaining criticism and monthlong series that can highlight some of our favorite creators and creations. We thank you for another great year with us here at MFJ. So in that spirit that we hope makes you smile, our December ode to one of our favorite sibling duos: Deck the Gyllenhaals.
One of the most heartening transitions in Hollywood over the past 10 years has been French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve’s ascension from indie darling to big-budget auteur. What’s even more promising is that the progression has led to very few, if any, compromises to his artistic integrity along the way. After breaking out with the Oscar-nominated Incendies in 2010, it didn’t take long for him to graduate to thoughtful mid-budget films like Sicario and Arrival and to eventually command Christopher Nolan-scale projects like Blade Runner 2049 and the (sigh) forthcoming Dune.
2013 was an important year for Villeneuve, as it saw the release of two films that would exponentially speed his career along. The better remembered of the pair is Prisoners, a morality-based thriller with a star-studded cast that included Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal and captured the attention of audiences worldwide to the tune of $120 million and change. The lesser known of the couple, Enemy, is a decidedly smaller profile picture with a fraction of Prisoners‘ budget even though it also stars Gyllenhaal in the lead role. Villeneuve has done plenty of great work the past decade and while BR2049 is arguably his most accomplished movie, Enemy remains my personal favorite in his oeuvre.
The film is a loose adaptation of José Saramago’s novel O Homem Duplicado, Portuguese for “The Duplicated Man,” although it was retitled The Double when translated into English in 2004. Fittingly, Enemy had a doppelgänger of its own in 2013 by way of Richard Ayoade’s The Double, based on the unrelated Dostoyevsky novella of the same name. Because that title was already in use — and presumably because the title The Two Jakes was already taken by some other movie — Villeneuve went with the title Enemy instead. It turns out to be the most apt title of all, as this is a movie chiefly concerned with a man who is at odds with himself, which is to say in conflict with his own desires and vices.
Gyllenhaal is Adam Bell, a reclusive history professor who rents a movie on the advice of a fellow teacher and spots an extra in a bellhop outfit who looks identical to him. Curious, Bell discovers the actor is Anthony Claire and after confirming his likeness based on two other film appearances, Adam becomes obsessed with his apparent twin and eventually makes contact with him. After the men come together and remark on their impossible similarities, they diverge and search for answers on their own. Adam reaches out to his girlfriend, played by Mélanie Laurent, for advice, and to his mother, played by Isabella Rossellini, to see if it’s possible that he could have an identical twin of whom he was unaware. Meanwhile Anthony’s wife, played by Sarah Gadon, becomes aware of Adam’s existence and is bewildered when she meets him face-to-face.
As one may expect, the central mystery of Enemy does not lead to a straightforward conclusion and reveals more layers of psychological complexity as the story moves along. Without giving too much away about the details of the plot, it’s enough to say that the film’s primary theme is infidelity and what it takes to finally and fully commit to someone. Much like David Lynch’s erotic thriller Mulholland Dr., this is ultimately a puzzlebox movie where characters from both films literally stand with a key in their hands during pivotal moments in their respective storylines. Similarly, it’s difficult to watch Villeneuve’s film just once and grasp the entirety of its symbolism.
The reactions of those who have seen Enemy tend to fixate on one aspect, which is the film’s deliberately challenging final scene. Each person I’ve seen the film with for the first time tends to cycle through the same feelings of shock, then amusement and then befuddlement, although the implications of its meaning have made it more terrifying for me than anything else. When discussing authoritarian rule in a lecture hall during the opening scene, Bell says of systemic suppression that “this is a pattern that repeats itself throughout history.” I won’t share my interpretation of the ending here, but I would urge first-time viewers to consider this early line in the film when sussing out the ending.
Regardless of how one reacts to the last scene, there’s no denying the benefit of getting two Gyllenhaals for the price of one. Like all of the best dual roles, Gyllenhaal establishes credibility early on by crafting two distinct personalities that allow us to tell the difference between what is essentially the same person. He also does plenty with body language to establish distinguishing features of the two men, plaguing the meek Adam with a perpetual slouch while dignifying the cool-headed Anthony with the posture of confidence. One of my favorite shots in the films crawls in on a helmeted Gyllenhaal as Anthony as he sits on his motorcycle with his legs perched out like a spider waiting for prey while the web-like streetcar wires of urban Toronto lie overhead.
As Dune is presumably finished at this point and just waiting to be released at a time when a pandemic isn’t mercilessly ravaging the populace, Villeneuve’s next project has already been announced. Collaborating with Gyllenhaal once again, both as actor-director and co-executive producers, Villeneuve will head up The Son as a limited series for HBO. Based on a bestselling novel by Jo Nesbo, the show would seem to focus on an escaped convict who can’t remember his past and finds himself on the run while dealing with opioid addiction. It would seem that Gyllenhaal and Villeneuve teaming up is a pattern that repeats itself, and I personally hope for a fruitful continuation of their reign.