Movie Reviews
Thursday , July 27 2017
Little Spiders, Big Spider: Untangling Enemy (2014)

Little Spiders, Big Spider: Untangling Enemy (2014)

Spoiler Scale (How spoilery is this article on a scale of 1 to 10?):  9  

Adam (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a college history professor, who by a chance movie viewing, discovers his doppelganger, Anthony (also Gyllenhaal) lingering in the background.  Adam tracks Anthony down, only to confirm that, physically speaking, Adam and Anthony are exactly alike.  But in all other respects, they could not be more different, or so it seems, until Adam’s decision to cross paths with Anthony changes things.

Enemy is about as Kafkaesque as a film can get.  While sharing the dour milieu of psychological implosion with the likes of Jacob’s Ladder (1990) and The Machinist (2005), Enemy’s unsettling mix of reality and absurdity is also informed by Kafka’s more allegorical tendencies and political overtones.  Consistent with that tradition, Enemy is a challenging/infuriating puzzler, in much the same vein as Donnie Darko (2001), which also featured Gyllenhaal in one of his first starring roles.  In the case of both films, viewers who endeavor to put together the narrative and thematic jigsaw – scene by scene, shot by short – may find themselves left with a few missing holes and extra pieces.

The film begins with a pan across downtown Toronto – one of many transitional shots of the cityscape burdened by filtering inspired by images of a sand storm, according to Production Designer Patrice Vermette.

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Toward the end of this shot, we hear a voicemail from a concerned mother (not in the original script), which fades into a shot of the son – sitting in his car.  Although this shot does not appear later, closer inspection reveals that Adam is waiting outside a hotel – presumably to meet Anthony for the first time.

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And finally, there is a pregnant woman, looking back from on the bed as someone enters the bedroom.  We later learn that this is Anthony’s wife, Helen (Sarah Gadon), and although this shot does not appear in the film proper, it could have – in the place of its infamous ending.

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This mysterious introduction of non-shots from the film is followed by an epigraph that literally begs the viewer to solve the puzzle (“Chaos is order yet undeciphered”).  We may never really know the real agenda of screenwriter Javier Gullón and director Denis Villeneuve (Incendies (2011), Prisoners (2013)) in adapting the novel, The Double (2004), by José Saramago.  According to Villeneuve, “Enemy is a movie designed to be seen in different ways.”   But despite Villeneuve’s stated desire to foster ambiguity and improvisation on the set, there was a “super structure” to the original screenplay (Filmmaker, Winter 2014, p. 60.)   So in the spirit of embracing duality, this essay offers two parallel theories to untangle Enemy – the little spiders and the big spider, if you will.

Little Spiders

“When I read The Double, I said okay, the main subject of exploring the identity and subconscious of a man – that’s a subject that deeply interests me.”  – Denis Villeneuve, Director

Immediately following the brief shot of his pregnant wife, the film proper commences with Anthony walking with another man down a dark and secluded hallway to a door, where a silver key unlocks a door to private sex club evocative of the most controversial sequence in Eyes Wide Shut (1999).  The women are nude, but faceless.  Even when the women are not shown wearing masks, Villaneuve is not interested in showing their heads.

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This theatrical portrayal of anonymous, unconnected sex serves as the introduction to Anthony’s character.  And notably, the sequence ends with one of the women serving up a spider, only to place her high heel over it with the shot ending just before she crushes it.  If the film’s first spider represents sex divorced of intimacy, the shot also shows its fleeting nature.  And if Anthony is the spider of Adam’s psyche, the shot also proves to be prophetic.

Within this context, it makes perfect sense that Anthony’s wife is pregnant.  In a way, pregnancy is the antithesis of an anonymous encounter – after all, each party’s DNA is inextricably linked to another.  With the allusion to his history of philandering, Helen realizes that Anthony has lost the propensity for intimacy and is not the man to be the father of her child.  As such, quite independently of Anthony, Helen seeks out a different version of the same man – Adam.

Later in the film, Adam dreams of walking down the hall to the same club in the first sequence – one of the first intimations that Adam and Anthony may be one in the same – but the nude woman Adam passes is upside down.

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On the surface, the woman is identified as the spider; but it is actually Adam who is walking on the ceiling.  Once more, as Adam awakens from the dream, so too does Anthony.  Considering that the dream sequence is preceded by Helen confronting Anthony about his doppelganger (“I think you know [what’s happening]”), this is the first suggestion that Adam and Anthony may actually be personifications of different aspects of the same person.  This idea is later buttressed by the next sequence, where Adam first sees Anthony in person – or half-person.

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But whereas Adam feels anxiety, Anthony sees opportunity.

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And when Anthony learns that his wife has met Adam, Anthony seizes that opportunity by turning the tables – stalking Adam outside of his apartment.  Ultimately, however, Anthony doesn’t follow Adam; rather he tracks Adam’s girlfriend, Mary (Mélanie Laurent).  As he does, the intent behind his gaze becomes more and more obvious.

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But as Anthony’s character seems to get closer and closer to merging with Adam’s, he also feels the pangs of the monkey on his back.

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At the end of the second act, Adam finally meets his mother (Isabella Rossellini), whose voice mail plays over the opening sequence and whose phone call was earlier ignored as Adam was researching Anthony’s talent agency profile.  Or so we think this is Adam meeting his mother, as the scene concludes with the following admonishment (in stark contrast to the voicemail that opens the film):

“You are my only son.  I am your only mother.  You have a respectable job.  You have a nice apartment.  And since we’re being frank here, I think you should quit that fantasy of being a third-rate movie actor.”

(Shortly thereafter, Helen asks Adam, who she thinks is Anthony at the time, what happened with the meeting with his mother.)  We also learn that Anthony loves blueberries, and Adam does not, as the third act raises the irreconcilable conflict.  Clearly, Adam and Anthony cannot continue to coexist.

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Anthony uses his third-rate acting skills to feign suspicion that Adam has slept with Helen, manufacture some righteous indignation, and insist that Adam needs to allow Anthony to assume Adam’s identity and take Mary away for an evening of evening the score.  Curiously, Adam’s denials are ambiguous, and he relents with no resistance.

While Anthony drives Mary to the same hotel where Adam and Anthony first met, Adam goes to Anthony’s empty apartment, enlisting the doorman’s assistance to gain entry.  He looks in the closet.  Apparently he shares the same fascination in certain women’s apparel as Anthony.

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He changes into a suit from Anthony’s closet, which is not that dissimilar to what Adam’s been wearing throughout the film.  He looks around the apartment and takes particular notice of a photo of Anthony and Helen on the mantle.

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It is the complete version of the photo that Adam pulled out of his own storage box in his apartment at the beginning of the film to identify Anthony as his self.

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When Helen arrives, she notices nothing amiss – that is, until the person she thinks is Anthony expresses concern for her.  This is not the Anthony that she has come to know, who from their prior scene together, has become utterly disengaged.

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As she invites Adam to bed, it becomes clear that Helen is buying into the game, eventually asking Adam, “Did you have a good day at school?”  But it is more than role-playing.

Meanwhile, Anthony and Mary are getting it on in the hotel room – that is, until Mary freaks out when she notices the mark of his wedding ring on his finger.  (At the same time, Adam awakens in Anthony’s bed in tears.)  As Anthony is driving Mary home, arguing violently, Anthony insists upon his identity (“I’m not a fucking man?!”)  (cut to Adam and Helen consummating their relationship) before finally the car crashes.  Maybe Anthony never was a separate and distinct man; maybe Anthony’s life was really Adam’s, or vice versa.

By the next morning, the merger of Adam and Anthony is complete.  As Helen emerges from the shower and reminds Adam that his mother (read: domesticity) has called, Adam looks at the key to the club.  (Adam would be aware of the nature of what the key unlocks from the conversation he had with the doorman, who accompanied Anthony into the club at the beginning of the film and later returned the favor by letting Adam into Anthony’s apartment.)  “Helen, do you have any plans tonight?  Because I think I need to go out.”  Adam and Anthony are really one in the same, and after Adam/Anthony make the decision to step out on Helen, his walks into their bedroom to find …

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What is the spider?  Perhaps it represents Adam/Anthony’s perception of the trappings of intimacy.  Or perhaps it is a metaphorical acknowledgement of Adam/Anthony’s decision to return away toward the distractions of the dark side.  Either way, Adam/Anthony’s reaction is not so much one of surprise, but a breath of acknowledgement.

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And that’s one theory.

Big Spider

“While Enemy has been billed as an erotic thriller and a doppelganger movie—and it is both those things—I think ultimately it’s a parable about what it’s like to live under a totalitarian state without knowing it.  It’s an Invasion of the Body Snatchers movie in which you don’t even realize it’s an Invasion of the Body Snatchers movie until the end—until it’s too late for our hero.  In this case, the body snatchers just happen to be giant spiders.” – Forrest Wickman in “What Should We Make of Enemy’s Shocking Ending?,” slate.com (Mar. 14, 2014)

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Exhibit A in support of Wickman’s theory appears within the some of the first spoken words of the film delivered by Adam to his college students.

“Control.  It’s all about control.  Every dictatorship has one obsession.  And that’s it.  So in ancient Rome, they gave the people bread and circuses.  They kept the populace busy with entertainment.  But other dictatorships use other – other strategies to control ideas and knowledge.  How do they do that?  They lower education.  They limit culture.  Censor information.  They censor any means of individual expression.  And it’s important to remember this – that this is a pattern that repeats itself throughout history.”
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What could be a more dramatic representation of the loss of individuality than meeting your copy?

The speech is repeated to another class a few minutes later in a montage of Adam’s grey routine – perhaps, to call the viewer’s attention to its importance, or perhaps, to demonstrate that although Adam speaks the words, he may have taken them for granted.  As Adam talks about repetition through history, we witness a life of stunted expression.  (Get up and go to work.  Teach the same class.  Go home.  Have sex with girlfriend.  Fall asleep.  Repeat.)  As the film goes on, Adam’s awareness of history – along with the viewer’s relationship with the logic of the film – will eventually decay into …

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So what are the bread and circuses in Villeneuve’s world?  First and foremost, it’s sex – a tool that Villeneuve is eager to exploit to ironic effect.  However, it is worth noting that in the film’s club sequence involving Anthony (discussed above), sex is shown as a distinctly observational activity.  None of the men participate.  In fact, it’s doubtful that any of the happenings shown on screen would be illegal in Toronto.  It’s just live pornography.  And yet, we later learn that the club requires a key that is handed out selectively to its members.  In this sense, if sex is the new opiate of the masses, then this room is surely the den – the ultimate in palliative entertainment.  And in this context, the end of the sequence – featuring a naked woman serving up a spider – simply adds the metaphorical connection to this particular circus.

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In contrast to Anthony’s introduction, we find Adam entertaining himself by reading a book in the lunchroom.  At one point when Adam needs to access to the internet (item #2 of the modern bread and circuses), he has to dig out a wire to do so.  And yet, as Wickman points out, Adam’s routine seems to consist of teaching class, drinking wine (item #3 of the modern bread and circuses), and having uninspiring sex with girlfriend, Mary, until a friend recommends a movie, “Where There’s a Will There’s a Way” (item #4 of the modern bread and circuses).   Although Adam is supposed to be grading papers, he puts on the DVD, and immediately after the watching it, he slips into bed and tries to steal a little backdoor action from a passed-out Mary – a moment of sexual adventure turned misadventure that anticipates his very next discovery – the insatiable Anthony.  After Mary has left, Adam awakens from a dream, remembering a brief shot of a bell boy in the background of the movie.  With a little help from google, he discovers the uncanny likeness.

As Wickman argues, despite the fact that Adam is a history professor and seems to be disturbed by the course of events, he does not fully realize that his own city – shown from the opening shot to be lost in a smoggy haze – is being taken over by an oppressive, totalitarian presence.  Under this approach to the film, the spider is the manifestation of that presence.  Early on, the signs are subtle – such as a plant in his teacher’s lounge or a web of cables under which Adam partakes of public transportation.

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At the beginning of the second act, during Adam’s vain attempt to spy upon and contact Anthony from outside his apartment, the focus suggests that it is Adam who is being watched from above …

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… which is followed by immediately a moving overhead shot that is accompanied by an almost inaudible rumble on the soundtrack, as if something large is passing over the apartment building.

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And by the beginning of the third act, a more explicit expression of the metaphor appears in these two brief shots.

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But like Adam, the viewer needs to be paying attention, because these shots are simply modifications of two (of the many) throwaway transitions that appeared 10 minutes into the film (sans the spider of oppression).

By contrast, Anthony is clueless to anything other than his own indulgences.    So when Anthony meets his identical double, Adam, he takes the opportunity to feed his id with a new sexual experience.  Of course, shortly after he accomplishes his objective, his own death bears the mark of the spider’s trap.

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As Wickman observes, however, Adam fails to heed the warnings in his own aching head and becomes more and more like Anthony.  And by the end of the film, when Adam too squanders the chance to (re-)embrace a conscientious life.  As the film’s narrative cycles back to the first sequence, he looks at the key and decides to go to the club.  The spider has won.  Another person who was aware of the repetitive nature of history, and could have done something about it, has now become part of the distracted, anesthetized, and disconnected masses.

Of course, this socio-political reading of Enemy seems to marginalize the roles of Mary, Helen, and Adam’s mother.  On the other hand, it’s difficult to imagine a more effective MacGuffin than a pregnant woman – especially when the actress portraying her could have easily been cast by Hitchcock himself.

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And perhaps there is a connection between the little spiders and the big spider, as Wickman concludes his article with an apt quotation from an interview with Villeneuve:  “Sometimes you have compulsions that you can’t control coming from the subconscious … they are the dictator inside ourselves.”

But the spiders and the webs of Enemy are so ubiquitous – so spread over so many contexts – that the motif risks becoming meaningless, like a bunch of extra pieces that came with the puzzle but don’t seem to fit in the missing holes.  And in this sense, there is a fine line between a film that is admirably elusive and the product of a filmmaker simply trying to be enigmatic.  Donnie Darko has earned a cult following due in part to its unsolved plot mysteries, but the filmmakers were confident enough in their vision to offer its viewers enough variation in tone, enough humanity in its characters, and enough answers to want to keep them guessing.  By contrast, Enemy emits a singular vibe of oppression from which it never really lets its characters or us come up for air.  The only moment of levity (arguably) is the inexplicable penultimate shot.  And for that reason, Enemy may be a very good film, but not quite a great one.

Grade: B+

About Steven

Expressing an appreciation (or lack thereof) for all sorts of films for over 25 years.

5 comments

  1. Great read, very thorough. Loved this film myself and the fact it let’s you try to solve the puzzle. There aren’t enough movies like this I think.

  2. Really enjoyed the critique. There are a few things that weren’t discussed here, though such as what the blueberries represent. I’m not really sure myself.. Also, in some ways, Adam and Anthony were similar even before they crossed paths. Specificaly, they both were in disengaged relationships. Also, in the movie they said Marx said that the second time a mistake was made, it would be a comedy rather than a trajedy. This is crucial to the movie, I think. All of the characters repeated mistakes. And though the end of Mary and Anthony had the appearance of being tragic, I would say it was more comedic. His lecture also presented us with two different ways that the populous is controlled by those in power: through diversion and oppression. He had always been controlled. Him repeating his lecture word for word (from what I remember) is evidence of that. I don’t think the spider at the end was supposed to represent him being controlled by the former means. A spider not only symbolizes control with its web but it also is symbolizes control with its ability to strike fear into man. I doubt Adam is going to be controlled by routine sex and a desire to find his doppleganger any more (the little spider). He will fall into line. Adam had the ability to escape the web since according to the movie “where there is a will there is a way”. Instead of taking the message of the movie to heart, however, he became distracted. His lack of will first lead to his loss of freedom (the trajedy since it was still available to him). Then lead to his oppression (the comedy or the big spider)

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