Thursday, March 20, 2014

"Enemy" Review

 “Chaos is order yet undeciphered"

That quote appears at the beginning of "Enemy" and it should be taken as a warning. Throughout its 90-minute running time, Enemy takes you down an unsettling path and doesn't let up until its shocking final shot. This film is director Denis Villeneuve's follow-up to "Prisoners", which came out last Fall, and if you thought the ending to "Prisoners" was baffling, it's child's play compared to this. As that quote suggests, no matter how crazy the final shot of Enemy seems on the surface, everything will start to make sense once you decipher it. It's a clever conclusion to an often tricky, clever little film, but the ultimate question is... does it all work?

"Enemy" stars Jake Gyllenhaal. This is his second collaboration with Villeneuve, after "Prisoners"(Enemy was shot first), and it's clear that the two have developed a great rapport with each other. What's remarkable about Jake Gyllenhaal in Enemy is that he plays two roles and gives each character just enough subtle differences that helps you tell each one apart. He's very intriguing to watch in this film and he gives Enemy the necessary edge that it needs to keep it from falling apart. Enemy's premise is a bit too silly to justify the tone that Villenueve's going for, but Gyllenhaal is what makes the film consistently watchable.

Adam Bell (Gyllenhaal's primary role) is a history professor at a small college in Toronto. When he's not lecturing his students about fascism, Adam lives a very cyclical, monotone life. Every day, he's teaching, grading papers, and having meaningless sex with his girlfriend (played by Melanie Laurent). He occasionally gets a phone call from his mother, but feels no reason to return her calls. He's very sheltered, almost trapped in his little world, but this all changes when a colleague of his randomly recommends a movie to him.

Adam takes him up on the movie suggestion, but when he watches it, he notices something very odd: one of the characters in the film looks exactly like him. At first, he's just in disbelief, but his world quickly turns upside down when he eventually meets his doppelganger face to face.

Denis Villenueve demonstrates a remarkable sense of craft and style in this film, adding just enough visual flourishes to keep you hooked. Enemy's score, written by Daniel Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans
consistently gives the impression that something strange is happening. It has a very uneasy, nervous, and paranoid feeling----which is exactly how Adam Bell feels.

Still, I could not help but feel that this serious exploration in style comes as quite a contrast to the actual story that's taking place. We hardly get a chance to explore the film's central premise before it all comes to a head. And while there are surely many context clues to help you understand what the film's going for, from a thematic standpoint, Enemy is a little too emotionless to let it all sink in naturally.

No matter how hard you try to piece this all together, you will never see the film's ending coming. I guarantee it. It's so sudden, so out of left-field that it really took me aback at first. The ending will baffle you, confuse you, it might even anger you. While there are definitive thematic implications surrounding the film's final shot, I keep thinking to myself whether the film really earned this shocking moment. Enemy is a very tricky, twisty thriller but there doesn't seem to be an emotional core. It has this thematic undercurrent of individuality and fascism, but there's not enough of an emotional pull to help you understand Adam Bell's struggles with the philosophical implications of what he's going through.

With Prisoners and Enemy, the one director that Denis Villeneuve reminds me of is David Fincher. This is definitely an apt comparison. They both are interested in exploring the thriller genre and their visual approach is actually quite similar. But whereas Fincher's style has become so intrinsically linked with the story and characters, Villenueve seems much more interested in theme. I would argue that Villenueve's interest in theme actually hurts both films. While I really enjoyed Prisoners, much more than Enemy, I often felt that the film's themes and characters were so closely linked together that there was very little room for these characters to breathe. They, in effect, become so single-minded in their actions that they start to feel secondary to theme.

By contrast, Fincher's Mark Zuckerberg and Lisbeth Salander feel much more free and open in their own cinematic worlds. While Zuckerberg may be a bit monotone and emotionally closed off from everyone else, you do get the sense that this is a three-dimensional character. Lisbeth Salander also feels like a character who brings more to the table than just being a tool to carry the plot forward. As much as Fincher is a visual master, he's just as interested in character, which is a very underrated aspect of him as a filmmaker. Villenueve has not really hit the sweet spot, that balance between theme, character, and story at least not between Prisoners and Enemy. If he were to let his characters breathe a little more in his story, allow there to be time to break through the rigid tone of each film, then I think he could wind up with something really fantastic. 

As it is, I don't think Enemy is a bad film, but it's not particularly good either. It's an intriguing film and it's topped off by a fantastic performance from Jake Gyllenhaal, but at a brisk 90 minutes, I definitely feel the story could have been fleshed out just a little bit. Melanie Laurent and Sarah Gadon barely have much to do other than to be sexual objects for both Gyllenhaal characters. Isabella Rosellini's character feels even more marginalized.

Once the initial shock of Enemy's ending begins to wear off, the film doesn't really leave much of an impression over time. I was definitely engrossed by the film throughout its running time and think that Villenueve's style is very intriguing. Knowing that Prisoners was filmed after Enemy, I get excited when I think about what this director is capable of. Maybe Enemy isn't as clever or sophisticated as it thinks, but with the right material, Denis Villenueve is on the verge of making something that will really knock us off our feet. Enemy feels little more than an intriguing stepping stone. Worth the watch, but proceed with caution.

Grade: B-

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