I’ll admit it. I was not always the biggest Jake Gyllenhaal fan. But, as Richard Cohen quoted Nora Ephron at the latter’s funeral, “This is going to be like the movies. We start as enemies and end as friends.” Who better to apply a “like the movies” quote to? The son of a director/screenwriter marriage, the brother of an actress and brother-in-law of an actor, Jake’s relationship to the world of movies is vast.
He debuted as a ten year old in City Slickers (1991) and has acted consistently ever since. I first became aware of him ten years later when he played the lead in the supremely quirky and bizarre Donnie Darko. I adored that movie and wrote rather extensively about it, yet for some reason, I never credited Gyllenhaal’s performance for much of its success.
In the early 2000s, he tended to alternate weak films, like Bubble Boy, with good films in which he again seemed to fade into the tapestry, like Lovely & Amazing. The big breakthrough would come a few years later, in 2005, when Jake starred in several acclaimed movies. The heavy hitter was Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain.
Academy Award nomination notwithstanding, Gyllenhaal always felt like the weak link in that groundbreaking movie. He never feels as authentic to me as Heath Ledger and Michelle Williams. In fact, at this point, I was of the mind that big sister Maggie, who had recently walked the impossibly fine line between pathos and camp in Steven Shainberg’s Secretary, was the Gyllenhaal blessed with the lion’s share of the acting chops.
Then, much like Richard and Nora, the nature of our entire relationship changed. I suppose it began with David Fincher’s engrossing Zodiac in 2007. It may not have been the first time in his career that Jake probed dichotomy, but his obsessed cartoonist is finely tuned blend of light and dark, so crucial to the movie’s overall tone.
Since then, though the films have remained a hit & miss affair, the actor has been consistently improving on that inner conflict. It was there in Love & Other Drugs. It was there in Source Code. In Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners, the best movie of 2013, Gyllenhaal’s complexity is put to even greater use, for he cedes the seemingly complex role to Hugh Jackman’s character. In so casting, Villeneuve ensures that even the “normal” detective in this psychological thriller offers great nuance. The following year, the director and actor teamed again for Enemy, Gyllenhaal’s finest work up until that point. He handles the dual role of a rather shy man and his egotistical doppelgänger with effortless aplomb. Overall, Enemy is not as successful as Prisoners, and that points to a trend in Gyllenhaal’s career.
He has, right up until the present, alternated strong and weak films. His star vehicles from the past two years – Antoine Fuqua’s Southpaw and Jean-Marc Vallee’s current Demolition, are highly flawed movies. But Gyllenhaal is not to blame. He does all he can with a rather ludicrous boxing story in Southpaw, adding great physicality to the emotional intensity he has often shown off. And if only Vallee had used half the restraint his star demonstrates in Demolition, a mess of technique and image in search of meaning.
He tossed in a fine supporting performance in the less-than-lofty Everest last year. But the real triumph – the best performance of his career, and indeed the best performance by a lead actor in 2014 – came in Dan Gilroy’s creepy Nightcrawler. His Louis Bloom, the epitome of unmoored ambition in the age of the free-lancer, is one of the most realistically scary creations in recent American film. It is a brave and unique performance, one that I’m not sure any other current actor could have delivered as potently.
There was an actor many years ago named Dan Duryea who specialised in slimy noir villains. If filmed in the right light, Duryea could be a handsome leading man, but something about his manner relegated him to character parts. His voice fit the oddball, his movement seemed just a tiny bit off. You never felt quite at ease with Dan Duryea, and his best movies used that to great advantage.
Jake Gyllenhaal has evolved into a top tier leading man, but there is always that hint of character actor just below the surface. Like Duryea, he makes mediocre movies, but he will never be bland. He has the handsome good looks to be a heartthrob, but he will never be a pure romantic.
And that, in the end, is why we should treasure Jake Gyllenhaal. He never seems to take the easy way out. His roles are exceptionally complex – either in terms of technique (Enemy) or morality (Nightcrawler), and often in terms of both. He has already delivered a wide range of memorable monsters which never seem outlandish or cartoonish, but also never quite seem of this world.
And he is still just 35 years old. He is now old enough to be president of the United States. But hopefully he will continue providing compelling characters on film for many decades to come. Being president might require actual madness, and not merely the finely honed cinematic versions he has been creating for the past 25 years.