“I just feel more alive in what I’m doing,” Jake Gyllenhaal, star of this week’s excellent “Nightcrawler,” told Indiewire back in February. While that could easily sound like so much actorly cod psychology, so much soundbite-friendly chatter from a PR-trained star with a movie to shill (it was on the eve of the release of “Enemy”), two main factors put the lie on that possibility. First, if there’s a single trait that characterizes the meta-story of Gyllenhaal’s career to date, it may very well be sincerity. He has not always succeeded, and his choices have not been flawless, but it feels like he has essayed each role, whether it’s his shimmery, minor key Oscar-nominated turn in “Brokeback Mountain,” or the bluff, buff, bronzed action hero of “Prince of Persia,” with a whole heart. It’s not difficult to believe that Gyllenhaal takes his responsibility to his films seriously, even when they have failed to serve him in return.
Second, and most importantly, the kind of revitalization of which he was speaking is simply plainly observable right now. Perhaps because his films have never quite sunk the to nadirs of fellow renaissance-narrative recipients Michael Keaton or Matthew McConaughey (Gyllenhaal, being younger, has no real equivalent to the likes of “Post Grad” or “Fool’s Gold” in his back catalogue), or perhaps because that aforementioned sincerity meant that even in mediocre films he’d be giving it his all, Gyllenhaal’s resurgence might not feel quite so meteoric. But without doubt his fortunes have waxed and waned, and at this point it is impossible to ignore that the 33-year-old actor is coming off a string of blistering performances in films actually worthy of his commitment and dedication. It’s as though after a long period of prevarication, and of testing different types of stardom on him, suddenly the world, and Jake Gyllenhaal, knows exactly what to do with Jake Gyllenhaal.
It’s rare that the story of an actor’s career can be told in sweeping, clean lines, but Gyllenhaal’s trajectory to date kind of does lend itself to simple before-and-afters.There’s the before “Donnie Darko” portion—highlights include juvenile roles in “City Slickers” and “October Sky,” but emerging from his teenage years, it was Richard Kelly’s genre-bender which made Gyllenhaal the go-to guy for post-millenial young adult angst. He duly followed it up with acclaimed indies “Lovely & Amazing” and “The Good Girl,” before doing the time-honored Hollywood rising star thing of looking for a route into blockbuster territory. The lead in Roland Emmerich disaster pic “The Day After Tomorrow” gave him an early taste of bland, big-budget (smash hit) spectacle, though he also auditioned to play the title character in “Batman Begins,” and was briefly lined up to take over the role of Peter Parker in “Spider-Man 2” when health issues/contract negotiations looked to rule out Tobey Maguire—now there’s an interesting what-if scenario.
As it shook out, the next big marker in his career would not be a comic book film, instead he’d pick up an Oscar nomination for his turn in Ang Lee’s tale of thwarted romance, “Brokeback Mountain.” At which point surely the world must have been at his feet, yet somehow, (perhaps that post-Academy recognition curse kicked in) the next five years were filled with disappointments, movies that often underwhelmed critics (2007’s “Zodiac” being the obvious exception, though even that has taken time to be recognized for the masterpiece it is), and always underwhelmed their backers.
John Madden’s misfire “Proof” and the underrated Sam Mendes movie “Jarhead” both failed to connect with audiences. While he’s terrific in “Zodiac” Gyllenhaal admitted to finding the process difficult, candidly saying later, “we’d do a lot of takes, and [Fincher]‘d turn, and he would say, because he had a computer there ‘Delete the last 10 takes.’ And as an actor, that’s very hard to hear.” In any case, the film was mishandled by the distributor, and made only $30 million domestically, continuing the somewhat disastrous run for the actor. And it was far from over. Contrived political thriller “Rendition” was comprehensively rejected by audiences, Jim Sheridan’s decent remake of “Brothers” didn’t do much better—although Gyllenhaal is excellent in the film, as is Tobey Maguire—and Ed Zwick’s rom-com “Love And Other Drugs” flopped as well (though it too is better than its reputation). Worse still, he starred with Jessica Biel in David O. Russell’s satirical comedy “Nailed,” only to see that film fall victim to financing problems that prevented its completion.
Low as that point was, it wasn’t yet quite the lowest ebb of Gyllenhaal’s career—at least with those other roles he had a kind of indie integrity to keep him warm at night. But when Gyllenhaal finally did decide to suckle at the studio teat he seriously miscalculated with expensive, long-delayed, would-be tentpole “Prince Of Persia: The Sands Of Time.” It got rotten reviews, and failed to cross the $100 million mark domestically (it eventually limped to $300 million worldwide—making it the highest grossing video game adaptation ever, surprisingly—but with production costs as high as $200 million, it ultimately still lost Disney a bundle). But just as “Batman And Robin” had done for George Clooney, the film seemed to have a galvanizing effect on the star. He told EW recently that, during the shooting, “There was a moment when I went, ‘I’m not what my work is.’ Meaning, I’m not communicating who I am.” And unlike many other stars who’ve resolved to turn things around and have failed, Gyllenhaal has spectacularly followed through.
Since the low-tide year of 2010, the actor has turned in a run of five performances (working mostly with hungry, hotly-tipped up-and-comers) that have seen him doing some of the best work of his career, and doing it consistently. But for now, we’ve examined the five roles the actor’s taken since course-correcting at the end of 2010, that have exploited his weird, wired, idiosyncratic energy to the fullest and thereby have led to him stealthily becoming one of our most valuable, watchable, and interesting leading men.
“Source Code” (2011)
The most commercial of Gyllenhaal’s post-“Prince Of Persia” roles was the first out of the gate, and is in some ways the least interesting of his projects, although working with the fast-rising young director Duncan Jones is an indication of the kind of work that the actor wanted to seek out. And though it’s less showy than some of what was to come, it’s a damn fine performance that illustrates he can carry a movie even when he’s not in character actor mode.
Ben Ripley’s much-touted Black List script, a thriller take on “Groundhog Day,” sees Gyllenhaal play Colter Stevens, a man who wakes up on a train in the body of someone else, opposite a beautiful stranger (Michelle Monaghan) who seems to know who he is, only for the train to suddenly explode. And then he wakes up and does it all over again. As it turns out, he’s actually a soldier, being used in an experimental device that sends him into an alternate timeline, and the military uses him to find the identity of the bomber to stop him from striking again.
As a follow-up to Jones’ “Moon,” it’s a bit of a let down, wooly in its science to the point where it stretches credibility, and disappointing the closer to a mainstream thriller that it becomes (the villain, when ultimately revealed, is a total sap). But it’s also a lot of fun while it unfolds, and much of that comes down to Gyllenhaal’s performance. He’s as intense as all get out, but dappled with the sly sense of fun he often brings, and a genuine romanticism (he and Monaghan share buckets of chemistry). When the film’s shocking late twist about Colter’s real-world state arrives, there’s a beautiful pathos to the way that Gyllenhaal plays it, grounding the film even as the plot reaches a silliness that threatens to snap it. Better was to come, but it’s an underrated performance that signalled the turning of the tide for the star (the film was also a sleeper hit, taking more than $150 million worldwide on a $30 million budget).
“End Of Watch” (2012)
Given that he started his career making his name with a run of deeply awkward teens, it’s interesting the way that Gyllenhaal has grown up with a string of performances that embody a certain kind of very 21st century masculinity—macho, yet sensitive—and “End Of Watch” might be the defining performance in that mold. Shaven-headed and bulked up, Gyllenhaal plays Brian Taylor, a Marine-turned-LAPD officer (and part time film student, hence the film’s semi-found-footage conceit), who’s partnered up with best friend Miguel Zavala (Michael Pena). The plotting of David Ayer’s film is decidedly loose (there’s something about a drug bust making them the targets of a local cartel, existing purely to amp up the tension into a brutal final shootout), but this is really the show of the two lead actors, and both are superb. Interestingly, the actors admitted later that it took them a while to bond (“It’s so weird hanging out with this guy knowing he’s going to be like your brother from another mother,” Pena told The Guardian. “It puts a lot of pressure on you”), but it doesn’t show on screen. There’s an easy, fraternal chemistry to the pair, and you absolutely believe in every moment that they’d take a bullet for each other. Pena is more obvious casting for a picture like this than his colleague, but the always-committed Gyllenhaal, who says that the film “changed my life,” found a new level of immersion here, going on ride-alongs for five months, and later telling EW,“I learned that preparation was my savior. Freedom was on the other side of discipline.” And discipline is the right word. While Gyllenhaal can often be nervy and neurotic, there’s a steely determinedness and reliability to his character here, without sacrificing the visceral energy that Ayer gives the picture. The movie has issues: Ayer’s use of the found footage idea is wildly inconsistent even for the genre as a whole, and the ending feels like, excuse the pun, a cop-out (the script had a much darker, and some would argue fairer, conclusion). But Gyllenhaal, and his co-star, are easily its greatest virtues.
Last year’s slick, powerful, kidnapping thriller marked the first of two team-ups between Gyllenhaal and French-Canadian helmer Denis Villeneuve. “Enemy” (which shot first, but was released after) is dominated by Gyllenhaal, but he’s only one part of “Prisoners,” a supporting turn in a cast full to overflowing with big-name much-acclaimed talent, including Hugh Jackman, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Viola Davis, Paul Dano, and Melissa Leo. And yet Gyllenhaal walks away with the film, and in a role that on paper could have been a generic cop part.
The star plays the ridiculously named Detective Loki, who’s heading up the investigation into the kidnapping of the children of Jackman (as the even more ridiculously-named Keller Dover), Bello, Howard, and Davis, but who soon comes to suspect, entirely correctly, that Jackman has taken the law into his own hands and is responsible for the disappearance of a mentally-disabled suspect.
What could have seemed like a silly, sub-Fincher wallow in the darker side of human nature is elevated by both Villeneuve’s rigorous filmmaking, and the absolute commitment of the cast. But Gyllenhaal’s Loki is the best of the bunch, and that’s remarkable for a character who couldn’t be more of a cliche: the hero cop who’s never failed to solve a case. To put it simply, he’s a total weirdo, with a blinking tic, tattoos, and borderline Asperger-y social skills, and hints at a darker past a long way from his current path of law and order, one that the performance and film is smart enough to keep on the fringes. Almost every choice the actor makes is unexpected, and his off-beat rhythms clash beautifully with Jackman’s terrifying, grief-stricken revenge-bear. But given that he watched a hundred hours of police interrogations while doing research for the role, it’s not surprising that he comes off a little bit unhinged.
If “Prisoners” was Villeneuve and Gyllenhaal’s (admittedly dark) bid for the mainstream, “Enemy” was the exact opposite: an opaque, dense art picture that doesn’t just shy away from courting the audience, it actively butts heads with them. The result is one of the more haunting and eerie psychological thrillers we’ve had since David Lynch ran off to make questionable pop records, and the home to some of very best performance(s) that its star has ever given.
The actor plays Adam Bell, a quiet, borderline standoffish college professor with a girlfriend (Melanie Laurent) with whom the relationship seems to consist principally of late-night fucking. Renting a movie (a rare occurrence) one day, he glimpses an actor in a small role, Daniel St. Claire, with the exact same face as himself. The actor, a less chilly sort than his doppelganger, lives elsewhere in the city with his heavily pregnant wife, and the two soon end up meeting like a messed-up, Kafkaesque Tia & Tamara. Oh, and the film is almost literally overshadowed by the specter of enormous tarantulas.
How literally you take Villeneuve’s adaptation of Jose Saramago’s “The Double” is up to you, but lurking under the surface events is a story about, again, modern-day masculinity, commitment, and love, hidden with just enough skin-crawling weirdness that it’s not quite obvious. That it has an emotional and intellectual backbone at all is down in enormous part to Gyllenhaal.
Playing dual roles is something that many top actors get to do at some point (this wasn’t the selling point for him, though: “Someone just asked me,” he told Salon earlier this year, ‘Have you always had a bucket list where you wanted to play two characters in a movie?’ You know—is that some sort of actor indulgence or something? And that was the implication and I’ve never thought about that, ever”), but Gyllenhaal shies away from showiness, playing Adam and Daniel as two sides of the same coin, yet still carefully delineated. Until, at least, they crash into each other “Persona”-style, marked subtly by the performer. It’s a performance internalized to a degree that’s very rare to screen, and another example of the risk-taking that’s greeted this exciting new stage of the actor’s career. Also: giant spiders.
Then again, “Enemy” has some stiff and newly-arrived competition for Gyllenhaal’s best turn, because “Nightcrawler” is upon us, and the work is just as impressive, and entirely different. If “Enemy” was the actor at his most introverted, this is Gyllenhaal going big and bold, without losing the careful detail that’s fast becoming a trademark. Gaunt and positively ill-looking (he lost 30 pounds, of which he didn’t exactly have all that many of to begin with, for the role by living mostly off kale and running 15 miles to set every day, and the results are startling), he plays Lou Bloom, an unemployed semi-drifter who, after a chance encounter, decides to try and make a living (and maybe even reach fame) as a freelance L.A. crime reporter. Dan Gilroy’s film walks in the footsteps of those that have come before it (most obviously “Network”), but finds its own original, darkly comic path to follow, and part of that is down to Gyllenhaal’s titanic turn. Equal parts terrible desperation and overwhelming ambition, big-eyed and borderline psychotic, it’s like if Reese Witherspoon’s character from “Election” had a baby with a wild dog digging through a garbage can. Bloom is a positively toxic character, and yet you can’t take your eyes off Gyllenhaal if you wanted to, and you don’t want to for a second. Everyone does fine work, from Riz Ahmed and Rene Russo, to first-time director Gilroy (finding as unique a groove here as brother Tony did with his debut “Michael Clayton”), but the film’s star is the only thing you’ll be thinking about once the credits roll.
It’s all about as strong as run as any actor has had since the turn of the decade, and it’s one that, fingers crossed, will continue. After his gaunt turn in “Nightcrawler” he’s bulked up for Antoine Fuqua’s boxing picture “Southpaw,” is battling the elements alongside Jason Clarke, Josh Brolin, and John Hawkes in Balthasar Kormakur‘s “Everest,” and is teaming with “Dallas Buyers Club” and “Wild” helmer Jean-Marc Vallee for drama “Demolition.” Long may his run of form continue—let us know your own favorite Gyllenhaal performances in the comments. —with Jessica Kiang