For an actor of his age Jake Gyllenhaal sure has played a lot of memorable characters over the span of his acting career. He impressed audiences as Brokeback Mountain’s closeted gay cowboy Jack Twist, starred as Dastan in the Prince Of Persia video game adaptation that was actually worth seeing, and appalled viewers before enchanting them in 2010’s Love & Other Drugs as the fast-talking pharmaceutical sales representative Jamie Randall. But there are many more parts you could consider for a list like this: the troubled Detective Loki from Prisoners for example, End Of Watch’s cop Brian Taylor, or even Brothers’ ex-convict Tommy Cahill. Still, all of these memorable performances didn’t make the cut, which is a testament to the quality of Gyllenhaal’s strong and versatile acting.
Because of his chops chances are this top 5 will change sooner than later; it seems like a certainty in fact. Part of the reason why I am writing this column now is because of the teaser and trailer for Nightcrawler, a film that’s to be released October 17th. The promotional material offers a brief but impressive look at Gyllenhaal’s main character Lou Bloom, a character that could very well turn out to be another one of the actor’s performances we won’t be able to forget. But, for now, here’s how I rank Jake Gyllenhaal’s top five performances.
5. Zodiac’s Robert Graysmith
There’s a lot to love about David Fincher’s Zodiac from 2007, but one of the reasons why this film is one of the director’s best movies is Gyllenhaal’s central performance as Robert Graysmith, a political cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle who proved instrumental to the search for the infamous Zodiac Killer. Gyllenhaal’s portrayal of Graysmith is one that’s incredibly layered and nuanced, effectively fragile and, most of all, impossible to take your eyes off. His almost autistic character becomes the unlikely hero of this real-life story, but it’s his humanity and fallibility that provides the movie with its heart. It also makes Graysmith’s private life almost as compelling as the hunt for a serial killer, because Gyllenhaal’s turn is sympathetic, sweet, naive, but also quite dark once the character slips into obsession.
4. Source Code’s Colter Stevens
Duncan Jones’ 2011 effort Source Code has an intriguing premise: a soldier has to relive the same eight minutes over and over again to find a bomb aboard a train. It’s an idea that’s inherently repetitive and could become boring quite easily, but because of a stellar script, Duncan’s directing and Gyllenhaal’s powerful performance it never does. It’s actually Gyllenhaal who imbues the film with much of its urgency, because of his character’s palpable determination to get the job done. Most impressive: he grounds a narrative that’s both intelligent and far-fetched, and he is its relatable and decidedly emotional center throughout. When the plot thickens and Colter’s circumstances become more interesting, Gyllenhaal also gets to show an entirely different side to this strong army man, and it’s Gyllenhaal’s disarming brittleness here that sticks with you long after you’ve seen Source Code.
3. Jarhead’s Anthony Swofford
Sam Mendes’ 2005 adaptation of Anthony Swofford’s memoir that documented his time in the Gulf, is a tough film to watch. It depicts Swofford’s grim life as a Marine, a period during which he was mostly waiting to finally see some action, just so that there was a point to him being this far away from home. Gyllenhaal’s performance captures how unbearable this wait is, perfectly conveys the maddening boredom that takes hold of Swofford, a man whose life back home falls apart while he’s away, unable to do anything about it. It’s a powerful performance that’s unflinchingly honest and incredibly complex, a turn that effectively shows you what war can do to a young man and how experiences like these can stick with someone after they’ve served.
2. Enemy’s Adam and Anthony
In 2013’s Enemy, from Prisoners director Denis Villeneuve, Gyllenhaal delivers two riveting performances as both Adam and Anthony, two doubles. While it’s apparent from their haircut and clothing who’s who, Gyllenhaal’s versatile acting is instrumental in differentiating these two characters. While Adam is quiet, kind and mild-mannered teacher, Anthony is an egotistical, treacherous and bold individual who takes whatever he wants. In most regards these two men are polar opposites, and Gyllenhaal plays both sides of the coin extremely well and very convincingly. Most impressive is a scene in which both characters pretend to be the other, in which Gyllenhaal has to act on many levels to convey the fact that Adam is trying to play Anthony, something that doesn’t come easy to the character at all. Coupled with that fact that, in the scenes with himself, Gyllenhaal had to act opposite nothing more than a tennis ball to show him the eye line of the other double, it’s easy to see why his acting in Enemy is such a feat.
1. Donnie Darko’s Donnie Darko
As the titular character of Richard Kelly’s 2001 directorial debut Donnie Darko, Jake Gyllenhaal made a splash. His Donnie, a teenager either schizophrenic or truly haunted by visions, is a character that is both disturbing and enigmatic. Along with the character audiences are led down the rabbit hole, into a world where quite possibly nothing is as it seems. Gyllenhaal conveyes the confusion and fear of his character, but also the wonder and open-mindedness that make Donnie a character you can easily root for. Throughout the film, over the course of 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes and 12 seconds, Donnie grows as a young man, and because of it Gyllenhaal gets to display a range of emotions he also masterfully melts together to make Donnie into one of cinema’s most layered and intricate characters, and the film itself a true cult classic.
There you have it, these are my picks for Jake Gyllenhaal’s five best performances. Agree? Disagree? What performances of his that really moved or entertained you should’ve been on here? What choice of mine are you most baffled about? Please let me know and sound off in the comment section below.