Horror is expanding as a genre. Although your local multiplex is peppered with the usual contenders, look a bit closer at the schedule and you’ll find the latest drama, thriller, or crime offering is closer to horror than you might expect. In this new, bi-weekly series, Joey Keogh presents a film not generally classified as horror and argues why it exhibits the qualities of a great flight flick, and therefore deserves the attention of fans as an example of Not Quite Horror.
What’s better than Jake Gyllenhaal? Two Jake Gyllenhaals. Following his outstanding performance as ambitious sociopath Lou Bloom in the Not Quite Horror masterpiece Nightcrawler, Gyllenhaal returned to the sub-genre, a bit more beefed up, in Enemy, as a man whose life is turned upside down upon discovering there is another him wandering around, in Toronto of all places.
Okay, so the Canadian setting isn’t the scary part (although Enemy presents the city as the exact opposite to that featured in charming rom-com What If, released the same year and set in the same place). But, from the confined, claustrophobic, identikit apartment block in which Gyllenhaal’s character resides, to the expansive, echoing lecture hall where he teaches, there’s a sense that he’s in a living nightmare and that the walls are closing in on him and, by extension, us.Enemy presents its central conceit in a no-nonsense fashion. There is no big reveal, Gyllenhaal’s character Adam discovers his doppelgänger, Anthony, in a movie he’s rented out of boredom and decides to track him down. And that’s it, that’s the set-up for ninety minutes of stomach-twisting, nerve-shredding tension after which you won’t be even remotely sure what you’ve just watched. Upon spotting his double, Adam understandably freaks out but the true horror begins when Anthony, who is in an unhappy relationship with a pregnant wife he constantly cheats on, decides he wants a shot at Adam’s life (and his girlfriend) and vice versa. He soon shows up at his apartment, demanding his clothes and refusing to take no for an answer.
The film is adapted from José Saramago’s difficult novel The Double and directed by Denis Villeneuve, who previously helmed the similarly dark, also Gyllenhaal-starring, moody thriller Prisoners (another good example of Not Quite Horror). In that film, the tension was ratcheted up over nearly three hours, bit by bit by bit. Here, Villeneuve wastes no time dropping us in the cold sludge of an utterly incomprehensible mystery, leaving us to fumble about in the dark, unable to take even a couple of steps in either direction without getting stuck.
To put the movie’s bizarre tone into perspective, Enemy kicks off in a sex club, in which Gyllenhaal, looking confused/aroused, watches a beautiful, scantily-clad woman squish a massive tarantula with her stiletto heel – and it only gets more surreal from there. Spiders are a common motif, popping up at the most inopportune moments, just when we’re settling into the narrative. It’s assumed that Adam and/or Anthony has an aversion to them (you will too after watching this) but, to the film’s credit, it’s never explicitly discussed. This is the genius of Enemy, it never once explains to us what the hell is going on.
As a result, the tiniest, everyday details become terrifying. Gyllenhaal anchors the horror of (ab)normality with two, equally stunning yet totally opposing performances as Adam and Anthony who are, naturally, two completely different characters. It’s difficult to tell them apart from the get-go (obviously, as the same actor is playing both) but, as the film crawls creepily towards its finale, it becomes virtually impossible. As a result, it leaves us asking ourselves unanswerable questions about mental health, about the nature of obsession, about whether or not we ever truly know ourselves or those around us.
Sadly, Enemy emerged to little fanfare upon release, both here and across the pond, with an annoyingly limited theatre run (understandable, in a way, since it’s a very weird movie). As a result, it barely made a ripple, in spite of a good reception on the festival circuit. However, those who did manage to catch it were transfixed, with the bastions of truth and good journalism over at Buzzfeed even including it in their list of the Most OMG moments of 2014–a true honour, indeed.
It may sound a bit glib, but this really is a film experience unlike any other, one that is completely and utterly original, inescapably dark, mysterious, twisted, dripping with tension, and boasting two great performances from Gyllenhaal. Enemy is the best kind of Not Quite Horror movie; creepy, disturbing and deeply unsettling, it’ll crawl under your skin and refuse to budge. Track it down now and prepare to totally freak out the next time you spot a spider in the shower.