How Dennis Villeneuve Creates a Constant Sense of Dread in Enemy

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Creating a Constant Sense of Dread is a difficult thing to do in cinema. Dread is a somewhat more abstract feeling than fear or even suspense. It's that intangible anxious feeling that a film can give you by just inhabiting its world. It makes you uncomfortable in your own skin and keeps you on edge even when nothing directly unnerving is happening.

Moments of dread aren't uncommon but Creating a constant sense of dread that envelopes an entire film is a thing few directors have accomplished successfully. David Lynch is a master of it, Darren Aronofsky accomplished it beautifully in his first feature Pi and his latest film Mother!, and for my money Dennis Villeneuve crafted and sustained an all-encompassing sense of dread for the duration of his 2013 film Enemy.

The first element that contributes to this constant sense of dread is the framing. Enemy is beautifully shot but it is also intentionally… off. Enemy disregards the typical framing that you would see in a conventional film. Instead the film uses framings and camera movements that audiences aren't accustomed to seeing. This works to give a subconscious feeling that something is wrong. It can make audiences uncomfortable because they aren't seeing what they're used to. Shots are often left with a lot of headroom above characters, empty space that diminishes their size and adds mystery to the portions of the frame.

There is one striking commonality throughout every frame of Enemy. Color. If there's one color that comes to mind when you think of Enemy, it's yellow. The entire film is washed in a sickly yellow. If you are familiar with color theory, you'll know that a few of the color's negative connotations are jealousy, deceit, illness, and danger, all very appropriate for the subject matter of the film. The whole world of Enemy being coated in yellow not only creates a unified look for the film which enhances its dreamlike nature, but also takes away any sense of safety or familiarity and replaces it with an uneasy sense of dread.

Other than yellow and the occasional yellow washed green, the primary colors in the film are black, grey, and dirty brown. This lack of varied color is very strongly reinforced by the next dread contributing component, the architecture.

Enemy was shot primarily in Toronto with the city being a key part of Enemy. The world that Enemy creates is one of sprawling cement and towering structures of concrete. The brutalist architecture and crushing nature of the constant grey stone feels trapping and at the same time alienating. It stops our characters from melding with the world and yet keeps them trapped just on the surface, living in that dreadful space. The design of the city and the way it is presented compound the danger and/or intrigue that may be present at any given moment.

The next component is the film's use of establishing shots; The skylines, the landscape shots. We already covered how the architecture of the city itself adds to the sense of dread, now I want to talk more specifically about the way the city is shot, particularly in the establishing shots. These shots are macro, they pull away from the characters almost offering a break from the nightmare, except this film doesn't waste a shot. Even these macro high shots are made unnerving; by the smog that chokes the city skyline in its bleakness, or by the unexpected off-kilter camera movements that accompany them. These shots are the closest thing the film offers to a reprieve. These shots almost begin to feel like a safe space, until one displays a massive spider, towering above the city.

The film lulls you into a false sense of shallow security with these shots, so that the image of an arachnid taller than any skyscraper hits you harder when your guard is down, even ever so slightly.

The final two components are the music and sound design. The Score for Enemy is creepy and ambient but also mixes in more traditional instrumentation in places, which serves to make the ambient elements of the score feel more distant and unnerving. The traditional instrumentation that is there has an 'off' quality to it designed to wreak havoc on the listeners senses. The musical score also incorporates sounds often used to conjure up images of spiders in the listener's mind which of course correlates to one of the films central symbols. The sound design of the film has a cacophonous effect. The auditory atmosphere is dark and consuming, even overpowering when it wants to be. There is hardly ever a quiet moment. An outdoor conversation between two characters is pervaded by loud wind and shaking tree branches, not allowing silence to creep in between their words. This cacophonous sound design is near constant, and the moments that aren't loud, are often not just quiet, but completely and wholly silent. A complete absence of sound is actually somewhat of a rarity in film and puts the viewer on edge. This absence of sound is made even impactful given how out of place the silence feels within the otherwise busy acoustic environment.

All of these elements swirl together and create a constant sense of dread that never lets up. This sense of dread takes seemingly normal moments and moments where nothing is happening, and makes them incredibly tense.

Enemy isn't fully a horror film, It's more of a thriller and on IMDb the film is categorized as a mystery/thriller, but because of the overwhelming tension and sense of dread that hangs over the film, Enemy is creepier and more genuinely frightening than most horror films.

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