Review – Enemy

There’s double trouble to be had in Denis Villeneuve’s compulsive and uncompromising psychological descent into a world of neurosis, nightmares and arachnids.

Enemy is bold and beguiling filmmaking and a puzzle that will linger in the memory long after the closing credits

Enemy is bold and beguiling filmmaking and a puzzle that will linger in the memory long after the closing credits

Loosely based on José Saramago’s 2002 novel The Double as opposed to Dostoyevsky’s novel of the same name (which Richard Ayoade adapted to moderate acclaim in 2014), Enemy is one of those puzzle box films that reward repeat viewings.

Ostensibly, the movie follows unfulfilled history lecturer Adam Bell (Jake Gyllenhaal) down the rabbit hole following the shock discovery that a bit player in a movie he’s watching is his apparent doppelgänger. Adam seeks out actor Anthony Claire (also Gyllenhaal), who may be his physical duplicate but appears more narcissistic and charismatic than the nervous and emotionally repressed Adam. Their encounter has unforeseen repercussions for both men, as well as for Adam’s girlfriend Mary (Mélanie Laurent) and Anthony’s pregnant wife Helen (Sarah Gadon).

The left hand doesn't know what thr right hand's doing for Adam/Anthony (Jake Gyllenhaal) in Enemy

The left hand doesn’t know what the right hand’s doing for Adam/Anthony (Jake Gyllenhaal) in Enemy

Scratch beneath the surface, however, and Villeneuve’s absorbing picture is a spider’s nest of different interpretations and perspectives in which individuality has become as precarious as one man’s collapsing mind.

The film’s opening intertitle “Chaos is order yet undeciphered” – a line taken from Saramago‘s novel – is given form by the numerous long shots of a city (in this case Toronto); that most chaotic yet fully formed of human creations that here is infected with a yellow, hazy sickliness, beautifully realised by cinematographer Nicolas Bodluc.

Anthony's pregnant wife Helen (Sarah Gadon) in Enemy

Anthony’s pregnant wife Helen (Sarah Gadon) in Enemy

It has been argued (convincingly in my mind) the spiders seen throughout the film are both a visual and subtextual metaphor for a loss of freedom.

Adam teaches his class about the larger impact of this loss of freedom through his lectures on dictatorships, specifically their obsession with control and “censoring any means of individual expression”. On a more personal scale, Villeneuve shows us Adam/Anthony’s fractured psychological state and as the film continues it becomes apparent (at least to this reviewer) that Adam and Anthony are one in the same person, battling it out to see which side of his personality wins out. As a poster for the film implies: “You can’t escape yourself.”

Anthony (or is it Adam?) (Jake Gyllenhaal)  spies on Mary (Mélanie Laurent) in Enemy

Anthony (or is it Adam?) (Jake Gyllenhaal) spies on Mary (Mélanie Laurent) in Enemy

Shots of overhead electrical cables and a cracked window signify a spider’s web and lend extra weight to the suggestion that Adam/Anthony is trapped and must confront his own identity.

In many ways, Prisoners, the title of Villeneuve’s and Gyllenhaal’s other collaboration would be a more fitting title for this film, although the name Enemy, like the rest of the movie, works on more than one level.

Since breaking out with 2001’s Donnie Darko, Gyllenhaal has freed himself from the spider’s web of big budget nonsense like The Day After Tomorrow (2004) and Prince Of Persia: The Sands Of Time (2010) to set himself apart as an actor who commands serious respect. Gyllenhaal has had his fair amount of detractors in the past, but the choices he’s making with the likes of this and Nightcrawler are genuinely exciting.

Double trouble in Enemy

Double trouble in Enemy

Gyllenhaal is tremendous in the dual role of two men both separate and conjoined and, crucially, makes you forget about the novelty factor almost immediately. Laurent and Gadon don’t have an awful lot to do, but lend themselves to the overall sense of disquiet. The influence of Vertigo has been acknowledged by Villeneuve and the fact that both Laurent and Gadon are striking blonds in the picture is presumably a nod to Hitchcock’s preference for women in his movies with that hair colour.

Furthermore, the film’s ominous visual palette is lent extra impact by the disquieting score by Daniel Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans which pulls you around as much as Bodluc’s camera.

Enemy is bold and beguiling filmmaking and a puzzle that will linger in the memory long after the closing credits.

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Review – Nightcrawler

There is an idea of Louis Bloom; some kind of abstraction. But there is no real Louis Bloom – only an entity, something illusory. And though he can hide his cold gaze… he is simply not there.

A remarkably assured debut from Gilroy featuring a tour de force performance by Gyllenhaal, the wickedly disturbing Nightcrawler will crawl under your skin and stay there

A remarkably assured debut from Gilroy featuring a tour de force performance by Gyllenhaal, the wickedly disturbing Nightcrawler will crawl under your skin and stay there

I’m sure American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman wouldn’t mind being paraphrased to describe someone whom he would no doubt approve of.

Louis is a go-getter in the truest sense of the word; a guy chasing his share of the American Dream who also happens to be a sociopath and a monster made flesh by our insatiable appetite for blood-soaked true crime.

Screenwriter Dan Gilroy’s directorial debut turns over the bright and shiny rock of TV news to reveal the desperate putrescence beneath. It may not be particularly earth-shattering to lay bare the grisly cynicism that constitutes the US media machine – Sidney Lumet’s peerless Network did that almost 40 years ago – but Nightcrawler succeeds by wallowing in the muck with the leeches who feed the ‘if if bleeds, it leads’ TV news culture, in particular new kid of the block Lou (Jake Gyllenhaal).

Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) goes for his major scoop in Nightcrawler

Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) goes for his major scoop in Nightcrawler

When we first encounter Lou, he’s being caught stealing metal fencing by a security guard, whom he beats up. Even at this early juncture, it’s plainly obvious that something isn’t right with the guy and our unease is heightened further when he attempts to fence the fencing to a scrap yard owner and angles for a job at the same time; all the while quoting self-help book rhetoric and fixing the person in front of him with a rictus grin his saucer eyes fail to match.

It’s an affectation we discover he puts on for everyone and when he stumbles across Joe Loder’s (Bill Paxton) freelance film crew shooting footage of a car crash in order to sell it to the Los Angeles news networks, the missing link falls into place for Lou, who buys a camera and dives headlong into the venal world of ‘nightcrawling’.

The city of nightmares... Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) and cable TV news director Nina (Rene Russo) in Nightcrawler

The city of nightmares… Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) and cable TV news director Nina (Rene Russo) in Nightcrawler

With the assistance of intern Rick (Riz Ahmed), a down-and-out looking for a break, who goes along for the ride for a measly few dollars despite knowing his employer is a few slices short of a loaf, he hurtles around the city and sells on his grisly footage to vampire shift news director Nina (Rene Russo) with a self-assured expectation rarely seen since The King Of Comedy’s Rupert Pupkin that he will become a major TV news player.

Bravely, Gilroy eschews backstory for his unhinged protagonist and hands it over to the audience to mull over how Lou arrives where he does. He comes across as almost as blank a slate as Scarlett Johansson’s extraterrestrial visitor from Under The Skin and certainly has the same singular drive, while his mesmeric bug-eyed stare (made more striking by Gyllenhaal’s weight loss for the part) brings to mind the description of many a little green man.

Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) shows 'intern' Rick (Riz Ahmed) the ropes in Nightcrawler

Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) shows ‘intern’ Rick (Riz Ahmed) the ropes in Nightcrawler

It’s great to see Russo back on the big screen in a part deserving of her talents and it’s fascinating watching her character reduce from alpha dominance (her description of TV news as “a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut” being a case in point) to Lou’s lap dog as she relies more heavily on his macabre footage and falls under his spell.

Likewise, Ahmed in his breakout US role following a series of very strong roles in such British fare as Chris Morris’ Four Lions, is the only emphathetic character on screen (save for Kevin Rahm’s aghast news editor) and becomes trapped by Lou, who cruelly dangles the prospect of a pay raise based on a non-existent “performance review”.

The man who wasn't there... bug eyed Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) in Nightcrawler

The man who wasn’t there… bug-eyed Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) in Nightcrawler

Needless to say, though, this is Gyllenhaal’s movie and he really goes for it, giving a career best turn in the process. Gyllenhaal has generally been at his best when playing misfits or obsessive types in such films as Donnie Darko (2001), Zodiac (2007) and last year’s Prisoners and amps it up here to a previously untapped level. Lou is a truly unrepentant figure and is as mesmerising as he is appalling.

Less successful is James Newton Howard’s fist-pumping score, which is presumably meant as the soundtrack that Lou has swirling around his head as he goes about his nightly activities (akin to Taxi Driver); however, it doesn’t really come off and ends up becoming distracting. A gripe, albeit a small one.

A remarkably assured debut from Gilroy featuring a tour de force performance by Gyllenhaal, the wickedly disturbing Nightcrawler will crawl under your skin and stay there.

Review – Prisoners

The mark of Scandinavian crime drama seeps into every gloomy frame of this brutal and nihilistic English language debut from director Denis Villeneuve.

Prisoners may retreat into traditional thriller territory, especially in its final act, but it offers no easy answers and paints a very troubling picture of God-fearing American suburbia

Prisoners may retreat into traditional thriller territory, especially in its final act, but it offers no easy answers and paints a very troubling picture of God-fearing American suburbia

Prisoners opens with carpenter Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) uttering the Lord’s Prayer before his son (Dylan Minnette) shoots his first deer. It’s a symbolic moment – a violent act performed in God’s name, one in which forgiveness is spoken of but ultimately ignored.

Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) demands action from Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) to find his daugher in Prisoners

Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) demands action from Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) to find his daugher in Prisoners

Keller is a deeply religious man whose New Testament nature gives way to Old Testament retribution when his young daughter Anna (Erin Gerasimovich) goes missing along with the daughter of his good friend Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard) during a Thanksgiving dinner. Panic and grief give way to murderous vengeance for Keller when the police, led by Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), are forced to release their chief suspect, the mentally challenged Alex (Paul Dano).

Prime suspect Alex (Paul Dano) is interrogated by Detecive Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) in Prisoners

Prime suspect Alex (Paul Dano) is interrogated by Detecive Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) in Prisoners

Loki implores Keller and his wife Grace, who’s become virtually catatonic through grief, to let him do his job, which involves methodically following whatever leads the case throws up. But blinded by rage and convinced that Alex knows where the girls are being held, an obsessive Keller takes it upon himself to act as judge, jury and, if necessary, executioner to find the ‘truth’, sucking Franklin and his wife Nancy (Viola Davis) into his increasingly disturbing descent.

Keller Dover takes the law into his own hands in Prisoners

Keller Dover takes the law into his own hands in Prisoners

Cinematographer par excellence Roger Deakins infuses Prisoners with an almost suffocating dread – woods haven’t looked this spine-tingling since The Blair Witch Project. Not only does the film coldly nod in the direction of Scandi-drama, it also owes a lot to the slate-grey creepiness of David Fincher (in particular Seven and Zodiac), whose most recent film is, of course, his remake of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Another Scandi-connection can be found in the atmospheric soundtrack provided by Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson.

As well as the obvious religious overtones, it’s also easy to find a 9/11 allegory in Prisoners – a wounded America (religious everyman Keller) goes in search of revenge against its quarry (Alex) and is prepared to sacrifice its moral superiority to quench its thirst for vengeance.

Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) are dragged into Keller Dover's quest for vengeance in Prisoners

Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) are dragged into Keller Dover’s quest for vengeance in Prisoners

Aaron Guzikowski’s script asks some troubling questions, most notably, to what lengths would you as a parent go when your worst nightmares are realised. Given the right material, Jackman can really act and shows he’s far more than the Wolverine with a raw and powerful performance as Keller. Jackman’s natural physicality lends a ticking time bomb nature to his character, someone who you believe will do anything to get his daughter back.

Aunt Holly (Melissa Leo) protects Alex (Paul Dano) in Prisoners

Aunt Holly (Melissa Leo) protects Alex (Paul Dano) in Prisoners

Gyllenhaal, who played a political cartoonist dragged into tracking down a serial killer in Zodiac, gives Loki (another Scandinavian connection) a stoical implacability that nicely mirrors Keller’s bull-in-a-china-shop aggressiveness. His pronounced blinking suggests an appalled bewilderment at what his character is investigating and contributes to what is the latest in a line of fine performances from Gyllenhaal.

Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) on the case in Prisoners

Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) on the case in Prisoners

The heavyweight supporting cast are uniformly excellent. Dano, normally a little too over-the-top, dials it right down as the tragic Alex; Howard and Davis are entirely believable as a couple who suddenly find themselves on the wrong side of the moral line and don’t know what to do; while Melissa Leo is reliably great as Alex’s impassive Aunt Holly.

It’s not until you watch the film that you realise just how rare a commodity it is in American studio cinema these days. Prisoners may retreat into traditional thriller territory, especially in its final act, but it offers no easy answers and paints a very troubling picture of God-fearing American suburbia.

Review – End of Watch

Once the preserve of horror, the found footage film has spread its wings to encompass that other staple Hollywood genre; the cop thriller.

It was only a matter of time; our TV screens have been clogged up for years with such police-friendly ‘reality’ shows as Cops and Police, Camera, Action. All the while, fictional cop shows have endeavoured to become ever more authentic (minus the fruitier language), with arguably the most successful example of recent times being the acclaimed Southland.

End of Watch

End of Watch – enjoyable, but won’t stay long in the memory

In one episode of Southland, a patrolman must deal with the ramifications of punching a member of the public after it is caught on camera and broadcast online. As the episode’s opening narration states, “it’s a new age – a video age. People are always watching us [the police]. Everywhere”.

Writer-director David Ayer addresses this “new age” head-on in End of Watch. LAPD officer Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) is filming his day-to-day official activities for a project, to the annoyance of his partner and close friend Mike Zavala (Michael Peña). To assist with this Taylor fixes tiny cameras to each of their shirts to allow for first-person filming.

Following an arrest which turns up a stash of cash and a gold-plated AK-47 (“two of the major food groups – money and guns”, Taylor states), the two investigate a Mexican drug cartel. Although urged to let it go, Taylor persuades Zavala to stay the course, but little do they realise they’ve made themselves the cartel’s most wanted.

Ayer has made a speciality of hard-bitten cop dramas, from writing stints on the Oscar-winning Training Day (2001) and under-rated Dark Blue (2002), to penning and directing the less successful Street Kings (2008); all of which dealt with police corruption, something that’s absent in End of Watch. Here the hook is the first-person filming style, described by Ayer as being akin to “watching YouTube — where something in your mind tells you this is real”.

It’s an interesting notion that at times works very effectively, especially during an edge-of-the-seat scene where Taylor and Zavala enter a burning building to save some kids. However, Ayer undermines these moments of found footage (and, in turn, the whole film) by sprinkling traditionally filmed shots in along the way (including that now ubiquitous ‘soaring above skyscrapers’ shot). You’re never sure whether you’re watching ‘real’ footage or not, which has the effect of pulling you out of the film. To make matters more confusing, when the camera is attached to the front of a gun, End of Watch resembles a first-person shooter computer game.

LAPD’s finest Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and partner Mike Zavala (Michael Peña) in David ‘Training Day’ Ayer’s End of Watch

When you strip away all the pseudo-realism and gimmicks, this is a good old-fashioned buddy movie, akin to Lethal Weapon, and it’s the hugely entertaining camaraderie between Gyllenhaal and Peña that really drives the film forward.

In his most high-profile role to date, Peña is magnetic. Sure, his character fits the Latino stereotype we’ve come to expect, all hot-blooded, street smart and full of attitude, but Peña is a smart enough actor not to overplay it and instead gives a raw and entirely believable performance.

Gyllenhaal is a hard actor to pin down, but is usually at his best when dialling it down in such films as Zodiac and Brokeback Mountain. Here he delivers the full range, from bug-eyed hot-shot to measured introspection and just about carries it off. He gives as good as he gets when playing opposite Peña and it’s in the scenes when they are riding in the patrol car where both actors bring their A-game and really ignite the film. Here the dialogue really fizzes in spite of its somewhat clichéd nature (the differences between white and Mexican culture).

Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) gets up-close-and-personal in End of Watch

Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) gets up-close-and-personal in End of Watch

Much like the over-rated Training Day, character development is sorely missing from End of Watch. Ayer deals in black and white simplicity here, chiefly in the way the Mexican cartel gang is portrayed. With absolutely no redeeming traits, we’re left to wait patiently until they can be chalked off. Indeed, when the shifty-eyed head honcho Big Evil responds to why he’s called that by stating “’cause my evil’s big”, it’s clear Ayer isn’t exactly straining himself to make his villians memorable.

By adopting the found footage approach, Ayer has delivered a fresh take on the police drama and in Gyllenhaal and Peña has found one of its most likeable partnerships. However, like much of the content on YouTube, End of Watch won’t stay long in the memory.