Bread And Circuses: What The Hell Is ‘Enemy’ About?

Enemy-jake-gyllenhaal-blackboardEnemy is one of my favorite films of this year. But not everyone feels that way. The film’s surprising and confounding ending has left many scratching their heads, searching for meaning.

I know, because it has led them here.

Several inquiring minds have found their way to this blog through Google, usually through a search involving the phrase, “What the hell?”

“What the hell just happened in Enemy?”

“What the hell is Enemy about?”

And, a more specific search: “Enemy movie blueberries Jake.”

My initial review didn’t contain any answers, though, because I was reluctant to spoil the fun for those who still had yet to see the movie. If you haven’t seen it, the following probably won’t make a whole hell of a lot of sense, and I would urge you to check out this trippy, fun mindfuck of a movie.

And if you have seen it, I think I’m ready to delve into some of the movie’s specifics and at least offer some theories about what it could be about.

Enemy-poster-jake-gyllenhaalFirst off, let me say that I don’t think there is any definitive explanation for Enemy. Which is not to say that the writers and director do not have one in their own minds, but I don’t think any amount of evidence can prove one theory and disprove others.

Enemy gives us many, many hints as to what is going on, many of which seem to contradict each other. None of the most blatantly obvious possibilities that come to mind quite work — twins separated at birth, clones, body snatchers from outer space. Perhaps there is a “logical” explanation that makes sense out there somewhere, but I don’t think you can view Enemy so literally. In my eyes, there is virtually no way to explain every element of this movie in a straightforward and rational way, no matter how fanciful that explanation may be. Instead, it requires the employ of dream logic. Metaphor. Allegory.

Of course, the most obvious metaphorical interpretation is that Anthony and Adam are two sides of the same coin, two halves of the same person co-existing somehow in the physical world. Anthony could be a figment of Adam’s imagination, or vice versa — except that they each have their own lives and interact with other people. This kind of story has been told many times, and frankly, I don’t think Enemy would be so fascinating if this were all that was behind it.

There are a number of other theories floating around out there. Adam and Anthony are psychological doppelgangers representing two halves of the same psyche; all of Toronto has fallen under a totalitarian regime. These certainly have merit, but neither is fully satisfying to me. Neither, in particular, explains the use of spiders throughout the film.

So what is going on? I’ll offer up some observations I made during my three viewings of the film, and why they might be significant, and then present my own interpretation, based entirely on my own reading of the film.

jake-gyllenhaal-Enemy_Poster.-spider-head1) After one of many shots of the Toronto skyline, Enemy begins with Adam (or Anthony) in a car and a shot of Helen pregnant. Over this is a voicemail from Adam’s (or Anthony’s) mother, expressing concern over his new apartment. “How can you live like that?” she asks. When we see a naked Helen, it doesn’t look like she’s in the gorgeous bedroom of the apartment she shares with Anthony, but rather in Adam’s dingier, yellower-looking digs. Then we get a quote: “Chaos is order yet undeciphered.” We can assume, then, that the events of the movie are chaotic because there is some truth that must be deciphered, and it is quite likely the movie will end when that truth is grasped.

2) Spider #1. The first we see of spiders in Enemy, one is served up on a golden platter in an underground club. There’s something dangerous and sexy and dream-like about this place. It seems to be Anthony, rather than Adam, who is visiting; there’s obvious a very hush-hush, “members only” vibe to this place. Maybe we are meant to take this literally; it’s possible that these rich-looking men have a fetish for sexy women stepping on bugs. More likely, though, this is all highly metaphorical. We learn that chaos needs to be deciphered, then cut to Anthony unlocking a door in a mysterious hallway. So it seems that whatever is in this room — in this case, spiders — is the key to “unlocking” the mystery of the movie. Got that? Spiders are the key.

3) The Doorman. Later in the movie, Anthony’s doorman begs Adam (whom he believes to be Anthony) to take him back to the spider club because he can’t stop thinking about it. Does it make any literal sense that Anthony would bring his doorman along to a weird sexy spider-stepping secret society? Not really. So why the doorman? Let’s think about metaphor some more. This is literally the man who holds the keys to Anthony’s apartment; he is instrumental in allowing Adam into Anthony’s world, and thus in letting Adam become Anthony at the end of the film. It is interesting that the doorman is asking to be let again into Anthony’s secret world at the same moment that he is unknowingly letting Adam into Anthony’s. While the doorman is eager to go back, Adam himself is rather cautious and reluctant to step too far into Anthony’s world; Anthony seems to be delaying an inevitable confrontation with some truth, inching toward it rather than fully pursuing it.

4) Adam’s history lesson. A much more obvious script would have Adam teaching his class about duality, since of course many, many great works of literature have dealt with that. (Jekyll And Hyde, perhaps?) Instead, Adam talks about dictators asserting their control over the populace. If you view the film in an alien-spiders-taking-over-Toronto light, then this is all pretty expository. But what else might it mean? Adam talks of “bread and circuses” — entertainment — being used to divert people’s attention. Later, Adam — who claims he doesn’t like movies — will become distracted by one piece of entertainment in particular, one in which he discovers his own doppelganger. Adam mentions another strategy dictators use: limiting education and information. We’ve already established that there is some information we’re not yet privy to, because it has yet to be deciphered (by Adam). Adam talks about history repeating itself, and patterns — perhaps, then, the events of this movie are a reflection of something that already happened? Adam’s lesson also mentions that artistic self-expression is forbidden; later, his mother will tell him that he needs to give up his dream of being a third-rate actor. We watch as Adam’s life repeats itself. This Adam seems to be “controlled” by some higher power. Overall, Adam’s lessons seems to suggest that a lot of what we’re seeing is a rote cycle, a distraction from some greater truth.

5) The night that Adam watches the movie breaks the pattern. Adam’s life seems to consist of the same day over and over — until he rents the movie. After watching it, he tries to engage Mary in sex while she’s sleeping, which causes her to get angry and leave. Prior to this, we also see and hear her leave several times. Is this because, later in the movie, Mary makes a more significant exit after a different sort of violation by Anthony? Mary’s exit seems to a major part of the “pattern” Adam is experiencing, and it isn’t until he watches the movie that things change ever-so-slightly and she leaves in anger. This seems to be inching closer toward a realization that involves her leaving in anger. Adam watching that movie is a turning point in more ways than one.

6) Adam doesn’t notice himself in the movie right away. Instead, the fact that he’s an extra in Where There’s A Will There’s A Way comes to him in a dream, which makes the discovery that much more surreal. This sets up a pattern of revelations coming to Adam via his subconscious. (And we already know patterns are important!) Also, what’s with that movie title? It seems unlikely that a cheeky-looking comedy would have such an earnest title; maybe we can assume that the title is a pun, and the “will” of the title has something to do with the estate of a deceased person? If so, that’s a nod toward death being a major factor in what brings Adam and Anthony together. Adam tells the man who recommended the movie that he could use something cheerful — he wants entertainment to be a pleasant distraction, just as dictators do — but it doesn’t exactly pan out that way, because the movie is the first step on the road toward Adam’s very dark revelation at the end of the movie.

7) Adam is constantly sneaking into places Anthony has access to. I’m not sure this really helps solve the mystery, but we first see Anthony easily gain access to the spider-smooshing club. Adam, on the other hand, has to sneak into Anthony’s talent agency, has to use the doorman to get up to Anthony’s apartment, and has to wait until he finds the second key to visit the spider-smoosh club. Adam and Anthony meet in a motel room, which is also a place that can only be accessed with a key. In these and other ways, Anthony has the idealized life — and the one time he uses public transportation is when he is stalking Mary and plotting to become Adam for a night.

8) Anthony and Adam decide to meet in a hotel an hour outside the city, and neither of them comments on how strange this is. Any logical person would say, “Hey, why not a cafe around the corner instead?” No one wants to meet a mysterious stranger in a dimly lit hotel room, for obvious reasons. There is no reason for the meeting to take place here, unless it’s symbolic. Something important obviously happened in this motel room, which is made even more clear when Anthony takes Mary to this same hotel later in the movie. And when Anthony and Adam meet, Anthony asks Adam, “Show me your hands,” to which Adam reacts defensively. Why? Perhaps because those hands played a major part in something else that happens in this hotel room… later, when Mary notices Anthony’s wedding ring.jake-gyllenhaal-melanie-laurent-kiss-enemy9) The Hotel/Motel motif. Is it a coincidence that the movie Anthony is an extra in takes place at a hotel, and features him as a bellhop, and then their first encounter is at a motel? Doubt it! Also of note: when arriving at the motel, Adam takes a long look at a woman who appears to have blonde hair hidden under a black bob wig. Flashback? Is this Mary? I’m hesitant to read much into it, except that blonde women seem to have a lot of pull here (whereas the only dark-haired woman of note is Adam’s mother). That woman is seen holding a motel key card, and we’ve already established that keys play a pretty significant role in this story. Hmm.

10) We see things more from Helen’s point of view than Anthony’s. This is a curious choice. If the film were concerned with Adam and Anthony sharing equal confusion about why they look so much alike, we’d likely follow Anthony more. Instead, there are several scenes in which it’s Helen’s confusion that we identify with. We get only a few glimpses at Anthony’s thought process, so neither we nor Helen nor Adam can completely trust him. It doesn’t seem like he’s “in on it,” exactly, but it does often seem like he knows more than he’s letting on. (Helen even says as much.) So what’s the significance of Adam and Helen? Midway through the film, Adam and Helen have a strange encounter on his campus — she knows who he is, but he doesn’t know her. The film ends with them reunited. Clearly, this coupling is significant somehow — moreso than Anthony and Helen’s relationship is. Adam and Helen seem to have a purer, sweeter love, while Anthony and Mary’s brief fling is sinister, manipulative, and ends in death.

11) Helen is clued in to most of what is going on early on, but Mary never has any idea. Adam never mentions to Mary that anything strange is going on. In fact, once Anthony enters Adam’s life, we barely see them together at all, and Adam doesn’t put up any sort of a fight when Anthony suggests that he take Mary out to the motel. Instead, he is drawn toward Helen. This suggests that Mary isn’t remotely important to Adam, but Helen is. Why? My guess is that a lot of what we’re seeing involving Mary is some kind of memory or flashback. Anthony stalks her, first on his motorcycle, then on a bus, following her to work. Mary doesn’t see him, but if a man who looked exactly like her boyfriend was in her vicinity all that time, it seems like she’d probably notice if we were meant to view these scenes at face value. Instead, we’re probably seeing some sort of flashback of Adam/Anthony’s first time seeing Mary, becoming captivated by her, and wanting to begin an affair with her. But Mary isn’t ultimately important to Adam/Anthony. Helen is.

12) When Adam calls Anthony, Helen is suspicious, as if she believes Anthony is talking to another woman. This also indicates that Anthony has previously had an affair, possibly with Mary. If Helen suspected Anthony of cheating, and this is all a dream-like retelling of prior events, it makes sense that here, Helen would also be a suspicious person who is clued in to the strange events, and even goes on to investigate Adam herself. I believe that Enemy is a mixture of a dream state and a mixture of past events playing themselves out again, history repeating itself as it does in Adam’s lecture. It’s a fantasy story, a piece of entertainment distracting Adam from a painful realization.

13) People often cast blame outside themselves, rather than looking within. This explains why Adam and Anthony might be a fractured fantasy of the same person, which is pretty common in doppelganger movies and heavily implied here. Adam is boring and inoffensive — he doesn’t seem like a whole person, which means he might literally be Anthony distilled down to all of his “good” qualities, while Anthony is more like the id version. That way, Adam can blame Anthony for what went wrong rather than having to accept his own flaws and point the blame inward.

14) Movies represent reality. It’s no accident that Adam first encounters Anthony in a movie. We see “ourselves” in movies all the time; that’s the point of them. We’re meant to identify with fictional characters as a means of discovering things about ourselves.

15) Anthony is already a double of himself. Adam discovers the name of the actor who so eerily resembles him: Daniel Saint Claire. But that is not his actual name — it’s a stage name, a pseudonym. This already gives us a sense that he is not a real person. Adding to that is the scene where we see him “practicing” his dialogue to Adam in front of a mirror. Actors are constantly taking on new names and personalities, and Anthony seems to be more of a character than a full-fledged person. He is already all too used to seeing different versions of himself that all look like him because of his profession.

jakegyllenhaal-enemy16) Adam tells Anthony he’s “great” in his movies. Would anyone really tell an extra he was “great”? Adam is saying this because he wants Anthony’s life. It’s like Adam telling himself he could be great if he was an actor. Adam is desperate to meet Anthony because he wants to “meet” that side of himself; Anthony is reluctant because that side of his psyche doesn’t want to “meet” and accept the pathetic, true version of himself.

17) Helen is pregnant with Anthony’s child. When it comes to actually doubling ourselves, we do so via procreation. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Anthony has a child on the way; replication is already on this man’s mind even before the trippiness begins.

18) Adam’s name is Adam. The first man, according to the Bible. Is this to imply that he is the “original”? Just an observation.

19) Mom tells it like it is. Adam’s mother contradicts herself when she tells Adam he lives in a nice apartment — in the beginning of the film, we heard her saying exactly the opposite. (Mom has flipped!) She also has two other significant snafus here, telling Adam he likes blueberries and suggesting he give up acting. Both of these are Anthony qualities, not Adam qualities. We could assume that it’s Anthony in this scene, not Adam, but that doesn’t track because Gyllenhall is giving a very Adam performance here. It seems the lines between these two are beginning to blur. In my opinion, this scene’s mother is all wrong — if we can believe that the message at the beginning about the shabby apartment is true, then her saying his apartment is nice is false, and so is everything else she says here. It makes sense, if this is a fantasy, that this mother figure would be the one to start poking holes in the little fiction Adam’s psyche has created for him, because that’s what mothers do. They tell it like it is.

20) Lucid Dreams. Not surprisingly, the actors and filmmakers play cagey in the film’s rather unsatisfying Blu Ray extras, without providing a definitive answer for what the movie’s about. In fact, the clearest consensus seems to concern a man’s duality regarding whether or not he wants to remain faithful to his wife. This is certainly a major aspect of the story, though it still doesn’t explain those spiders. Curiously enough, it’s the title of the DVD extra, “Lucid Dreams,” that may provide the biggest clue. A lucid dream is any dream during which the dreamer knows he is dreaming. Now, I know that a film’s writer and director aren’t often involved in creation of DVD extras, but that’s a curious title choice for a movie that’s not about a character who is dreaming or fantasizing what’s going on. So let’s assume he is!


Okay, now that I’ve presented some evidence, it’s time to explain what I think is going on here. My best guess is that Adam/Anthony’s psyche has fractured into two personalities, but neither of them is the “real” version. More likely, the truth exists between them. Adam/Anthony is dead or dying, and his subconscious is struggling to accept that, fraught with guilt over how he died and anxious about the future going on without him.

It’s something like this: Adam is a history professor living in a shabby apartment… with his pregnant wife. He always wanted to be an actor. He wishes he were a guy like Anthony. But because he has done something he’s feeling guilty about, he projects those things onto the “other” version of himself. Adam may be having doubts about fatherhood. He cheated on his wife with Mary at that motel an hour from home. Mary then freaked out when she noticed the shadow of the ring on his finger. Adam and Mary fought in the car on the way back and Adam got into an accident in which he killed or nearly killed himself. Now he is struggling to make sense of what happened. In his guilt, Adam wishes he could be back with his wife without the “bad” version — the cheating version — being there. In his fantasy, Anthony and the mistress die in an accident and Helen is left with the “good” Adam, a happy ending of sorts.

At least, until… a giant fucking spider replaces her. We’ll get to that in a moment. Here are a few additional matters to consider.

21) Tarantulas. A few facts about tarantulas seem relevant to Enemy‘s plot (though reading too heavily into it might be didactic). Females have much longer lifespans than males. Females often show aggression after mating. Tarantulas shed an exoskeleton. Take that for what you will.

22) Spiders are scary. “Why spiders?” is a common question related to Enemy. And indeed, the spiders feel random. They could just as easily be anything else. But if I had to guess, I’d say that Villeneuve is using the spiders as a visual representation of death. Why spiders? Because they’re scary! At least, according to a large percentage of the population. There’s no physical being or object more feared than spiders, and it wouldn’t exactly work for Helen to turn into “heights” or “public speaking” (or any of the other phobias people have) at the end of the movie. So: spiders. When Anthony and Mary are (presumably) killed in the car crash, the windshield looks like a spiderweb. If this is the last thing Adam/Anthony saw before slipping into this lucid dream, or death, or whatever, it explains why spiders would be on his mind as his subconscious fights to grapple with what is happening.

23) Back to Spider #1. The spider-smoosh club doesn’t feel like a real place, does it? Taken as metaphor, the film begins with sexy women serving up death on a platter, and teasingly raising a high heel over it, as if to squash death. Do we see the heel come down? No. Because death can’t be squelched. This is the smallest spider in the film because it’s at the point where death is least present in Anthony’s mind.

24) Spider #2. The shot of a woman with a spider’s head walking on the ceiling more literally conflates women and death. Specifically, sexy naked blonde women. Why? If Anthony/Adam is dead or dying, he knows that his extramarital transgression with a certain blonde caused it, so it makes sense that he would now see a hybrid of the two. The scene comes directly after Helen has confronted Anthony about “the man” (Adam): she asks what’s happening, then says, “I think you know.” In the back of his mind, Adam/Anthony does know, and this more human version of a spider is the realization of his death creeping up on him again.

25) Spider #3. Now we see a ginormous spider hovering over Toronto! We’re probably not meant to take this literally. I take this spider as a further metaphor for death — looming over everything, but ignored. Notice how there aren’t military aircraft shooting at this titanic arachnid — it has gone unseen even though it’s pretty fuckin’ present. Just like death itself.

26) “I want you to stay.” Adam finds the key he gave to Anthony, the one that leads to the spider-smoosh club. He’s getting ready to go, and Helen says she wants him to stay. Does this mean she prefers Adam to Anthony? Kind of, but the line seems to have a greater meaning, too — Helen, or this version of Helen existing in Adam’s subconscious, wants Adam not to realize that he has died and continue to live in this fiction. But that doesn’t seem to be a possibility.Enemy_sarah-gadon-jake-gyllehaal

27) Helen’s last line in the film is “I forgot to tell you that your mother called.” What did the movie begin with? Oh, yes. A call from Adam’s mother. This is the last thing we hear from Helen, just as the movie has come full circle. In fact, Adam then asks Helen a question and gets no response, prompting him to go into the room and see what the matter is. Of course, the matter is that she is a giant fucking spider, but why now? Is this just a coincidence? No. Adam asks if she has plans for the night, telling her that he has to go out. He means to the spider-smoosh club. If spiders represent death, then his “going out” is rather permanent. He’s got the key now, thus he’s ready to face his death. Helen tellingly never answers Adam’s question because Adam is dead and he will never know what his wife’s plans for the future are. Instead, he faces death — in the form of a giant spider.

28) The final shot is not a spider. Ask anyone what the last shot of this movie is, and most of them would probably tell you it’s the shot of that big-ass tarantula. It’s not. It’s a shot of Adam reacting to it. Does he scream? Does he jump back in fear? That is certainly what any normal person would do if actually confronted with a colossal arachnid. Instead, Adam’s reaction is rather understated. It seems like he’s having a realization — and not a major revelation, but an awareness of something he’s been putting together all along. This confrontation seems inevitable, rather than a sudden surprise, which makes sense given that he’s been gathering clues all this while. The look on his face is one of acceptance, possibly even relief, in that all the chaos he’s been faced with finally makes sense. It has finally been deciphered.

29) The song that plays during the closing credits is “After The Lights Go Out,” by The Walker Brothers. Assuming that this is a carefully selected piece of music thematically relevant to the movie, the title of this song supports the idea that Anthony/Adam is dead/dying and having some sort of disturbing “life flashing before his eyes” experience, likely after the car wreck we see late in the movie. The song opens with, “As the sun goes down / My silent little room is growing dim / And the man next door / Is saying what a lousy day it’s been,” which reminds us a lot of Adam in the film’s opening. Even more relevant are these lyrics later in the song: “Someone called for you / But I hung up the phone / What could I say?”, which remind us of Adam’s calls to Helen and Anthony. (Find full lyrics here.) If Adam is the speaker of the song, he seems to be mourning the fact that death is separating him from Helen.

30) The movie itself is a doppelganger. Enemy is based on The Double by Jose Saramago. (The original Portuguese title is The Duplicated Man.) Another doppelganger movie this year, The Double, was based on a novella of the same name by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. The former novel presents the bare bones of the story we see in Enemy, but the movie takes it in another direction entirely, including the addition of the spiders. So don’t go looking for answers there.

Ultimately, the movie is open-ended enough to support any number of interpretations. The one I’ve presented here is the one that, I think, best explains away most of what we see in the movie. But who knows?




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