I’ve always liked Jake Gyllenhaal, but last week, he transformed from an actor I like, to one I consider truly great. Looking back over his career, he has consistently delivered solid work in a number of genres, routinely matching his charm and intensity with a distinct brand of subtle humor. Here are my favorite examples of his talent; a list comprised of a few good men, and some batshit crazy ones too.
5. Donnie Darko (2001)
as Donnie Darko
While Gyllenhaal’s big break came via a starring performance in October Sky (released in 1999), his breakthrough performance was as Donnie Darko. This is one hell of a bizarre, yet supremely confident head trip of a movie, led by a fearless performance from Gyllenhaal. The actor expertly inhabits the film’s distinct world, making it impossible to take your eyes off him. It’s worth mentioning that Gyllenhaal almost always manages to sneak in bits of understated comedy into his performances, of which Donnie Darko is arguably the best example. He really did feel like a disturbed, smart ass teenage kid.
4. Prisoners (2013)
as Detective Loki
I loved everything about Detective Loki. I loved his authentic interactions with his boss, I loved how close he got to Alex Jones while he was interrogating him, I loved his slicked back hair, his restaurant choice for Thanksgiving, his shocked reaction to witnessing a suspect kill himself, and, of course, I loved the hell out of his nervous blinking. Detective Loki was such a purposefully underwritten character, and Gyllenhaal’s ability to present a fully developed man through details proved to be one of Prisoners’ most impressive feats.
3. Zodiac (2007)
as Robert Graysmith
There isn’t too much I can offer in regards to praise for Gyllenhaal’s work in Zodiac, except to say that he truly became Robert Graysmith. There was no Jake Gyllenhaal in his obsessive madness. No Hollywood cute boy bullshit. This was a character that Gyllenhaal stripped down and built up from scratch. Sure, his character was based on a real person, but the performance is entirely the Gyllenhaal’s. There isn’t a shred of artifice to be found here. Rarely has an obsessive geek been so compelling to watch on screen.
2. Brokeback Mountain (2005)
as Jack Twist
As one half of one of my all-time favorite film couples, Gyllenhaal played Jack Twist as an eager lover, waiting for the opportune time to expose his intentions. From his first moment on screen, in which he flirtatiously sends glances Ennis Del Mar’s way, to a climatic argument on top the titular mountain, Gyllenhaal beautifully inhabits a tortured, raucous spirit with the utmost conviction. Heath Ledger’s performance is the more noteworthy of the two, but Gyllenhaal did wonders with his time on screen. He helped the audience make sense of Ennis’ plight, while himself creating an indelible character in the process.
1. Enemy (2014)
Yep. And believe me, I know. I know I risk coming off as a loon at the peak of a cinematic sugar high by listing Gyllenhaal’s most recent screen performance as his best. But my intentions couldn’t be more sincere. I’ve let Denis Villeneuve’s masterful new thriller, Enemy, stir around in my head for the better part of a week. My initial, ecstatic excitement for the film has subsided, and now I’m able to appreciate it critically, as opposed to impulsively. So, judging it critically, I’m confident in hailing the film as a great one, anchored by two perfect Jake Gyllenhaal performances. As was the case in my review for the film, it’s best to keep details about Enemy as quiet as possible. But let me offer this: acting is really all about two things: listening, and making choices. Every single choice Gyllenhaal made as Adam and Anthony was the right decision. He committed himself to these characters so intensely, that I completely forgot that I was watching Jake Gyllenhaal. Fair warning: readers of this blog should prepare to read a lot more about Enemy in the ensuing months. I’m not letting this film go anywhere.