Earlier this year, Denis Villeneuve's psychosexual thriller Enemy had a quiet, limited run in theaters. The film, which stars Jake Gyllenhaal as a man who has a series of surreal encounters with his exact double, earned solid (and occasionally ecstatic) reviews. It played in just 120 theaters at its peak, but if you did manage to catch Enemy, you were treated to one of the biggest shock endings in recent cinema history.
I strongly recommend watching Enemy in its entirety before watching its ending out of context — but if you need the refresher, I've embedded it below:
Though the ending is both horrifying and impossible to predict, Villeneuve spends much of the film building up to it. Enemy opens with a bizarre sex show that culminates with a woman lifting her high-heeled shoe over a large spider. Gyllenhaal's character has several spider-related dreams or hallucinations: one in which a nude, spider-headed woman walks across a ceiling, and another in which an enormous spider-like creature stalks between the Toronto skyscrapers.
The preponderance of the spider imagery leads to the question that has dominated virtually all discourse about the movie: what does it mean? Cinema, perhaps more than any other art form, plays to an audience that demands a tight, coherent explanation for everything that happens onscreen. The Shining's intricacies and dead ends spawned an entire documentary about people defending their disparate interpretations. Twenty years after the movie's release, Pulp Fiction fans still obsessively debate over the glowing object in the briefcase. When the enigmatic Picnic at Hanging Rock played to a distributor in 1975, he railed against the film for wasting his time on "a mystery without a goddamn solution" — missing, of course, all the far more interesting things that Picnic at Hanging Rock was doing.
And then there's Enemy, which has been discussed, almost exclusively, by people trying to make sense of its surreal narrative. When you search "Enemy movie" on Google, three of the top five results purport to "explain" what it was really about. Slate's analysis of Enemy's ending has been shared 2,700 times on Facebook, and Chris Stuckman's 25-minute "Enemy Explained" video has more than 250,000 views on YouTube.
"Enemy Explained" proposes a solution that puts the movie in a box with Jacob's Ladder or Fight Club, explaining all the movie's surrealistic contradictions as the manifestation of a mental delusion. As Stuckman sees it, the conflict between Gyllenhaal's character and his "double" is really just a metaphor for the internal conflict of a man who feels tempted to cheat on his pregnant wife.
This is an increasingly common approach: the idea that a seemingly inscrutable film is just a puzzle waiting to be pieced together. But Enemy's effect is achieved, in part, by the fact that the various elements of its story are impossible to reconcile. As Stuckman correctly notes, there are plenty of hints that Gyllenhaal and his "double" might be the same person — or, at the very least, that the lines between them are uncomfortably blurry. But there are also several scenes that don't work if Gyllenhaal's double isn't a real and separate person: an awkward encounter outside a university, a fight over a missing wedding ring, and a fatal car crash that's independently reported on the radio. Those scenes don't fit into the explanation Stuckman has constructed, so they're glossed over or ignored.
And then, of course, there's that ending, which Villeneuve has repeatedly described in terms of the emotional impact he wants it to have, instead of its intellectual meaning. "For me, the final image has a precise meaning, but I like to let the audience free to find it by themselves," Villeneuve said in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter. "It's like opening a trap under the seat of the audience and trying to create the feeling of vertigo. I love those images in cinema that are a challenge for the intellect."
He elaborated in a later interview: "There are movies I saw in my life that proposed images that were not explained but that were provocative. That were opening doors from a subconscious point of view. Images that are frightening or impressive, and at the same time, you feel the image. It prints itself in your brain, and you feel uncomfortable with it."
When handled with skill, the subconscious doors Villeneuve is describing can be just as powerful as a tight narrative. However a viewer interprets Enemy's ending, focusing on its specific meaning devalues its sheer emotional impact — the one thing that I expect each of Enemy's viewers could agree upon. There's always value in thinking about movies, but attempting to explain them can sand over what made them so interesting in the first place and rob them of a different kind of power. Some movies don't need to be deciphered; they need to be experienced.