'Enemy,' Jake Gyllenhaal, and the Male Id: Maybe Movies Are Screwing Us Up?
You'll never be Brad Pitt in Mr. and Mrs. Smith.
by Matt Patches
You'll never be a super spy, galavanting to every exotic location on the globe. You'll never go mano a mano with a squad of goons, busting heads without blinking an eye. You'll never get the hottest girl in the room, the gal who backs you up with a semi-automatic before slipping into your bed at night. You'll never have ripped abs, the perfect chin, the well-primped hair, the MENSA intellect, and an athleticism that would leave most Olympians in the dust.
You'll never be that guy, no matter how much or how often Hollywood asks you to dream.
But how far can one man indulge in that dream before he's consumed by it? In the new film Enemy, Jake Gyllenhaal portrays the physical manifestation of an internal struggle. (And there may be some light spoilers ahead, so consider this your warning now, macho man.) He's perfect for it; Gyllenhaal's handsome in a plain way (dare I say, normcore?), capable of overflowing with charisma and pulling back into bookish seclusion, an actor who attempted action hero superstardom in Prince of Persia and discovered it wasn't for everybody. He can play you and I — the people who will never be Brad Pitt — and in Enemy, he splits the male subconscious in two for a double duty role.
Enemy first introduces us to Gyllenhaal's Adam, a history professor dulled down by mediocrity and routine. He has little to complain about: He has a steady gig, effortless work, and a catch of a girlfriend (Inglourious Basterds' Mélanie Laurent). Everyday he wakes up, showers, teaches class, heads home, grades papers, sips some wine, makes love to his lady, then falls asleep. Adam encapsulates Freud's super-ego, executing life by pre-written standards as dictated by parental and educational figures. The fact that he's a teacher says it all. Adam is obedient in the cosmic sense. A DVD is all it takes to implode his existence.
Adam doesn't watch movies. Or that's what he tells a coworker who recommends him one. Adam caves after enough urging, picking up the movie at his video store. A few scenes in and he's hooked. For Adam, there's something hypnotic about the film. Then it hits him. Where most of us would project onto the characters and fantasize ourselves into the world, Adam literally sees himself inside the movie. He's an extra, a bellhop, standing behind the leads. Who is this guy? He must be real. A few taps of the Google machine later and Adam is on his way to finding Anthony, the mysterious doppelganger who happens to live in his same city.
Enemy, an adaptation of Nobel Prize-winning allegorist José Saramago's novel The Double, is propelled by detective fiction conventions courtesy of director Denis Villeneuve, whose previous film Prisoners was a literal whodunnit that drowned audiences in melodrama. Here he builds off a similar blueprint — but the actual “mystery” doesn't matter. Adam locates Anthony with logical sleuthing (he has the advantage of looking just like the guy). But it's Saramago's metaphors that add terror to Enemy.
Anthony is the pure id counter to Adam's super-ego. He acts from the gut, convincing himself that taking what he wants is fighting for what he needs. He's ambitious about the craft of acting, despite only nabbing extra work. He has an attractive wife, Helen (Sarah Gadon), who's pregnant with his first child, but he's cheated on her in the past. He works out like a madman, wondering out loud why Helen hasn't picked up more of the food he needs to stay fit. Anthony takes advantage of everything in his life to become a peak version of himself. He'll never get there either. Brad Pitt isn't even “Brad Pitt in Mr. and Mrs. Smith” when the cameras stop rolling.
At first, Anthony is baffled by his collision with Adam — he didn't know he had a twin either. Then he sees his double as another opportunity. Without pesky ego balancing the two personalities and raising moral questions, Anthony can consume Adam's life without ramifications. He can wear Adam's shirts, put on his shoes, romance his girlfriend, and fulfill a fantasy of escaping his own reality. Carnal desires make more sense to Anthony than other people’s feelings.
Villeneuve clues us in early on that Enemy exists in a dream world. The film opens with a walkthrough of a secret sex club, complete with masks, naked dancing, and ritualistic stomping of tarantulas. Spider imagery pervades the story, Adam dreaming of a giant arachnid storming through Toronto, but then the spindly symbology appears in the real world. Much like HBO's popular True Detective, these images can be misinterpreted as “clues” when they're really indications of a chaotic mental state. And like that show, Enemy skewers the heart of masculinity — Adam and Anthony aren't stand-ins for their respective Freudian profiles, they're the definitions personified, a split personality mangled by outside forces.
If only Adam avoided movies. When the drab professor spots Anthony in the film, he's looking at the life he could be living. Picture perfect. Brad Pitt-ish. Adam tells his history class that governments of the past used entertainment to distract their subjects. History becomes an endless cycle of failed and fresh dictators because no one can look away. The movie has the same affect on Adam; he undervalues the women in his life because a movie has opened his mind to greater possibilities. This is a real life issue: Superhero stories solidify archaic male stereotypes, romantic comedies claim women only want sex and babies from men, and, even contemporary party movies like Project X represent the ideal young man as a person who's continually drunk and touts a high hook-up count. These representations, blunt or subconscious, warp people.
Think of Enemy like a “nature vs. nurture” version of Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind. When it's clear Anthony operates on pure instinct, Adam tries to climb back up a slippery slope to undo his temptation. It's not possible. Anthony is Adam, and Pandora's Box has been open. They seem to exist on the same timeline. When Adam visits his mother, she asks him questions to which only Anthony would know the answers. Later in the film, Anthony's devious actions inform bits of backstory mentioned earlier in the film. A moment of sexual violence between Anthony and Mélanie Laurent's Mary feels like a memory experienced by Adam (having swapped places with the married man). Enemy takes place in the depths of the brain — where else in the world do video stores still exist? — and suggests that the pervasiveness of media will inevitably provoke the male id to disastrous results.
Perfection is considered a gateway to inner peace. Obtain it and feel truly alive. But Brad Pitt movies rarely shed light on the cost. An id-dominated life is a tunnel vision that belittles women and makes the man look like a total asshole. Enemy hijacks the offending format to hold up a mirror: If you're questing to be that guy in the movies, the Brad Pitt, it might be too late for you.