Monday, August 11, 2014

Enemy and the Thrill of the Hunt

by Patrick Bromley
Ever see a movie you didn't quite understand? One you wanted to explore further? What do you do? WHAT DO YOU DO?

A few weeks ago, I finally watched Denis Villaneuve's Enemy, his low-budget follow-up to last year's Prisoners. I've been talking it up on a few podcasts of late (it's currently available for streaming on Amazon Prime instant video). It's a real mindfuck of a movie and one of my favorites of the year.

The movie, about a Toronto teacher (Jake Gyllenhaal) who discovers he has an exact double living in the city and trying to make it as an actor, carries with it a sense of dread that recalls the work of David Lynch. Though very watchable for its photography, a really good performance (actually two good performances) from Jake Gyllenhaal and a fascinating sense of "what is happening?" suspense, it's the kind of movie that's guaranteed to leave audiences confused and possibly frustrated. It's obtuse in a way that few movies are willing to be now, and it rocked me.
Once upon a time, I might have immediately written the movie off, confusing my inability to not "get" it with a failure on the part of the filmmakers. But that's no longer a luxury for any informed or passionate movie fan. The answers are all available for us seconds after the movie ends -- just a quick search on our phone and we can find dozens of possible explanations for any movie. Or maybe it would have haunted me, forcing me to parse through what it all meant and come up with an answer that made sense to me. None of that really matters anymore, because seconds after the movie's fucking bonkers final scene I was able to pull up a Google search of articles expounding on what it all meant. And I got very, very different interpretations, ranging from the totally literal (the movie is a riff on Invasion of the Body Snatchers) to the metaphorical (the entire movie takes place inside one character's subconscious and none of what we see is actually happening).

This is the world we live in now. Contradicting interpretations, available at a second's notice. Unlimited information. Good for movies? Or GREAT for movies?

I remember going to see David Lynch's Lost Highway by myself in 1997 and loving it. I didn't understand it, but I loved it. The movie literally kept me awake all night as I obsessively tried to decipher its meanings and connect the dots. I came up with a reading I could live with, even though I would eventually come to realize it was completely wrong (I was taking things far too literally). At the time, it was almost the best I could do. Sure, the internet existed at the time, but I had no access to it. My friends weren't seeing the movie, so I couldn't talk to them about it. I found a David Lynch fan magazine called Wrapped in Plastic at Tower Records that had an article about the movie in it, but I don't remember finding any real exploration of its themes or meanings in it. I might as well have been reading Premiere.
Still, I didn't mind. It was fun hunting down clues in the analog world -- a way of extending the experience beyond those two hours I spent in the theater (actually four, because I dragged someone to see it the next night who was NOT A FAN) and not just find out more about a movie but actually discovering the temperature of whether or not people were even talking about the movie. Of course they were; it was David Lynch. But I didn't have many people around me talking about David Lynch...except the girl who worked behind the counter at the 24-hour video store I was frequenting around the same time. That's all gone now (the driving around and looking for magazines and the 24-hour video store, not the girl. I don't think. NOW I AM WORRIED.). Doesn't make it worse, just makes it different.

Now I don't need to go to Tower Records. That's good, because Tower Records is gone. Also gone? All record stores. But I don't need to leave my house to research theories on a movie's meaning or to get into a discussion with like-minded movie fans about the movie I just saw -- or any movie, for that matter. It's all available just by opening up my laptop or turning on my phone. Does that convenience diminish the hunt for meaning? Is it too easy now?
I'm sure many of you automatically say "no," because there is no such thing as "too easy" for most people. I get it. Not everyone fetishizes some of the extracurriculars that surround movie watching the way I do. Truth be told, the only disadvantage of this new model is that it affords me less of an opportunity to make up my own mind. Whereas I once was forced to spend days (or even years) theorizing about what Lost Highway was really about and arrive at my own incorrect conclusions, now I can have 10 different theories in a matter of minutes.

But that's also on me. I can resist the urge to Google theories about movies for as long as I want and come up with my own interpretations. I'm just not that strong. My immediate impulse is to go back and read reviews, to find writing about the movie, to read the theories about what's "actually" going on. In the case of Enemy, it immediately made me appreciate the movie more; while I had a gut feeling about what the movie was trying to say, hearing other movie fans point to specific textual evidence that either clarified or actually flat out explained certain aspects didn't just make me realize how much I liked the movie, but also made realize just how good a movie it is. There is an attention to detail I did not pick up on in one viewing, and which (if I'm being honest) I probably wouldn't have picked up on no matter how many times I see it.

Sometimes this convenient platform for theorizing gets out of control, creating extraneous noise that threatens to drown out the dialogue. In the post-Inception world, movie fans got a little carried away with reading every movie as a puzzle to be solved. There were theories about the last moments of The Dark Knight Rises being a dream, presumably because Christopher Nolan had directed it (and because some people were trying to rationalize an ending that felt out of step with the rest of the film -- no, it's not Alfred's fantasy and Bruce Wayne is not dead). It didn't matter than nothing about the text supported the interpretation. "Figuring it out" became the name of the game, even when the movie left nothing to figure out.
The internet makes those conversations more possible. Well, maybe not more possible (people may have still had them face-to-face, the way they did when Roosevelt was president and a piece of candy only cost a wish), but very much amplified. In 1997, I could read a couple of reviews and one article in PRINT and that was it. Now I can connect with any number of people and hear any number of different interpretations on any movie I watch. As a big believer that more information is usually preferable to less, that's a good thing. It changes the movie experience. I'm not sure I would like Enemy as much as I do had I not been able to sort out its meanings with Slate articles and VERY detailed YouTube analyses. But it also makes vagaries and mystery almost extinct. Think of just about any movie open to the slightest bit of interpretation (and many that aren't) and there are articles and forum discussions devoted to it.

So the hunt has changed. It's faster -- practically immediate -- and far more expansive. I still love it. The hunt allows for nonstop movie conversation, even if you're never really talking to anyone. I had a whole discussion about Enemy after I saw it and never opened my mouth. I read articles and watched videos, engaged with them in my mind, read more, responded internally. Not every movie requires such pursuits. Though every movie deserves to be talked about, it's only the rare and special film like Enemy (or Lost Highway) that lends itself and benefits from the hunt...provided you're willing to look.


  1. What interesting timing on this article, Patrick. I first saw Enemy when it came out on DVD maybe a month ago. I liked it, even though I knew I only understood maybe 50% of what was there. I then spent the next couple of days thinking over what I saw, watching a few short interviews with Vilanueve (in which he is very, very vague) before I watched it again. After the second viewing, I had what I call a "working understanding" of the movie. I could follow the plot, I understood the basic subtext (especially in Jake's lectures) and most of the themes. I then went to the internet to search out other's theories on the movie to basically reinforce or demolish my understanding. There's a good video on youtube made by Chris Stuckmann (who I usually write-off as being a dumb youtube critic in the vain of Jeremy "omg it was so awesome/badass" Jahns, who I'm convinced has no taste) that was incredibly insightful, and actually picked up on a lot that I missed. I recommend anyone who's seen Enemy and wants to know more to watch it. Enemy is the pinnacle of independent filmmaking, I couldn't get it out of my head for weeks after I saw it.

    Side note: Can we agree to never refer to a movie as awesome or badass ever again? Like, it's so stupid.

  2. Good article, Patrick. Loved "Enemy". Loved the look, the score, the performances and the continuous suspense and guessing game that the film gives. Just as you, I had to look up all of the theories afterward and what I read made me love it even more. It was also a proud moment as I felt that I grasped the gist of it pretty well on my first viewing, something that certainly doesn't ring true for most of these type of films. After viewing Upstream Color I had this whole theory as to what had just happened. Looked it up and couldn't have been more wrong. That was actually kind-of cool too because I felt that I had seen the movie in a totally different way and was immediately excited to re-watch it.

    Btw - Former 10 year Tower Records employee right here. Not the asshole "ugh, you like that?!" kind, the "hey, you like this, you might try this" kind. Can't wait for Colin Hank's Documentary on Tower if it ever comes to fruition.

  3. I look for interviews with the director or screenwriters, and a copy of the script. Second choice is critical reviews and podcasts. Reading general comments quickly becomes an exercise in filtration. Sadly, those answers were not very satisfying.

    Under the Skin took a few days to digest, and I wasn't bothered that my ultimate interpretation was a little different from that of the filmmakers. Prometheus was a much greater quest to fill the gaps of poor filmmaking. Ironically, this was leveraged by marketers to sell special edition Blu-ray discs in which "Questions will be answered."

  4. I have not seen enemy yet so I can't comment

    But I agree with what you are saying as a premise. A film never fully explained also starring Jake that also caused a lot of discussion between me and friends was Donnie Darko. I enjoyed the discussions. The theories. We like intelligent thoughtfull films that dont hold our hands.

    For me a sucsessfull intelligent film is when your first reaction is I want to see it again.

  5. I just thought of another thought provoking intelligent film that I keep watching. I still don't fully understand it but that is actually part of its charm. Darren aronofskys Pie.

    Another train of thought could be i could do more research and find out more thoughts and opinions but would this take something away from the film?

    Not knowing more could be just as good as knowing. Maybe even better?

  6. Uncanny timing for this article. Hopefully you'll see why soon.

    I'm on the side of more information being a good thing. I love it when there is more then meets the eye to movies (unless it's transformers. zing) but I usually need someone smarter than me to inform me what it is, but I'm ok with that because in the end I'm enjoying the movie more for having known.