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Villeneuve's Prisoners Follow-Up is Its Own Worst Enemy

Villeneuve's <i>Prisoners</i> Follow-Up is Its Own Worst <i>Enemy</i>

DVD Release Date: June 24, 2014
Theatrical Release Date: March 21, 2014 (wide)
Rating: R for some strong sexual content, graphic nudity and language
Genre: Drama
Run Time: 90 min.
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Melanie Laurent, Sarah Gadon, Isabella Rossellini

"Chaos is merely order waiting to be deciphered," reads an opening title card for director Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy. If you enjoy deciphering the inner workings of the subconscious, then Enemy may be for you, but even so, be prepared to explore some very dark places.

Prisoners, the previous film from Villeneuve, didn’t shy away from its dark subject matter—child kidnapping, the slow pace of justice and the human capacity to do disturbing things born out of desperation—but it also showed a larger purpose and power at work in that film’s story and outcome. Repeated references to faith and prayer took on heightened importance as Prisoners’ story unfolded, amounting to a standout film in a year filled with great movies.

Villeneuve’s Enemy stars Jake Gyllenhaal, who gave an award-caliber performance as Detective Loki in Prisoners. Playing a man whose background is given only fleeting verbal reference (we know he spent time in a religious home for youth and has not entirely kind feelings toward priests), Gyllenhaal exhibited behavioral tics and unwavering determination in cracking the case at the heart of Prisoners. It’s a strong film that grows stronger with additional viewings.

Enemy is, by contrast, so puzzling, so interior, so insistent on being a mind-bending experience that it becomes a much more muted experience. While it ends with a bang, that moment comes long after many viewers will have ceased to care about the main character’s state of mind.

Gyllenhaal stars in Enemy’s two key roles. He plays history professor Adam Bell, who teaches his students about the tendency of history to repeat itself and that all great things happen twice. His theory will be put to the test when he meets a second version of himself. His doppelganger is Anthony Clair, an actor first seen by Adam in a small role in a film recommended to Adam by a co-worker as “something cheerful” for the troubled Adam.

Adam and Anthony meet, but it’s hard to figure out what the goal of the meeting is, and what Adam hopes to accomplish. He meets Anthony’s pregnant wife (Sarah Gadon, The Nut Job) while growing more distant from his own girlfriend. Disappointingly, the story, based on a novel by Jose Saramago, goes toward psycho-sexual menace, with Adam and Anthony planning to sleep with each's significant other.

What, exactly, is the source of Adam’s apparent torment? And why do images of spiders keep cropping up in Enemy?

As a psychological thriller, Enemy never proves very thrilling. It’s mostly morose. We’re never given a reason to care about Adam or his state of mind. The screenplay by Javier Gullon gives no sense of urgency to the identity questions at the heart of Enemy, making for a film that challenges viewers to sustain interest in its characters.

A final shot gives Enemy an unexpected jolt, but it comes long past the point of caring about Adam or anyone else in Enemy. It also pales in comparison to the work of directors like David Cronenberg and Stanley Kubrick, who have explored similar territory in earlier films.

Enemy is a head game that’s just as likely to give you a headache as it is to stimulate further thinking about its story. No doubt it will have a few fervent fans who insist it’s a work of genius, but they’ll have to work hard to persuade the rest of us that pondering Enemy’s themes beyond its 90-minute run time is a worthwhile endeavor.

CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers):

  • Language/Profanity: The f-word; foul language
  • Drinking/Smoking: Shot of a needle; smoking; a woman says, “I think I’m drunk”
  • Sex/Nudity: A scene of men watching women at a sex club; a woman’s naked body on a bed, seen from behind; two people have sex, and fragments of the scene are repeated twice; a nude woman; woman’s breast seen from the side; two men have sex with each other’s lovers; a nude woman seen in a shower; a man gets into bed with a woman and kisses her
  • Violence/Crime: A car crash
  • Religion/Morals/MarriageA woman suspects her lover is having an affair; a mother tells her son, “You have enough trouble sticking with one woman”; a man suspects another man slept with his wife

Publication date: March 21, 2014