The Question

Two nights, ago, I posed a simple question on Twitter.  Here, you can see some of the responses:

 And finally…


The Context

I posed this inquiry less than a week after Deadline released a picture of Gyllenhaal in his latest role, Billy “The Great” Hope in Antoine Fuqua’s Southpaw.  The image is a shocking one, showcasing a physique that is markedly different than the one Gyllenhaal exhibited as squirrelly sociopath Louis Bloom in this year’s NightcrawlerSouthpaw tells the story of a Prize Fighter, so such a stature is necessary and central to that sort of storyline, but what is extraordinary is that this new bulging body type was accomplished in such close proximity to Nightcrawler, a film for which the actor reportedly dropped forty pounds.

In the Deadline article, Fuqua provides a glossed over anecdote regarding Gyllenhaal’s commitment to attaining the bulk, pointing out that Gyllenhaal “literally… broke up with his girlfriend” because of the amount of time he was spending in the gym. Of course, physical adaptation to a role is but one way to view commitment to the craft (and probably not even the best measurement and certainly not the most intelligent).  But physique change is often quickly cited in discussing some of the greatest actors of recent times: Tom Hanks, Christian Bale, and, most recently, Matthew McConnaughey.   This new image works as a microscopic metaphor of just how dedicated Gyllenhaal has become to capitalizing on his theatrical roles.

So the question I’ve been stuck on:

The Question

Why isn’t Jake Gyllenhaal more readily mentioned when discussing the greatest actors of our time?

The Evidence

When I asked our Twitter followers who they thought to be the best acting talent of the modern film era, Jake Gyllenhaal was literally the last individual mentioned for the evening. I find this exceptionally strange given that his latest streak might be the best streak of any actor or actress of the entire 2000s and we are right now in the middle of that streak.  No one ever seems willing to committedly endorse Gyllenhaal to that strong of a degree even though, in the current year, he’s given three stellar performances in two movies and his next movie was just occupying headlines on the second page of the movie news.

Consider the commercial, award, and critical praise showered on Matthew McConnaughey during the McConnaissance.  Take  nothing away from McConnaughey’s mostly deserved attention, but stack his current roles against those of Gyllenhaal.  McConnaughey has played five or six different Texans (one of whom was named Dallas) in different dramatic contexts while Gyllenhaal in his last five roles (Nightcrawler, Enemy, Prisoners, Source Code, End of Watch) has moved all over the boundaries on the map of cinematic storytelling.

In End of Watch, Gyllenhaal illustrates Los Angeles Police Officer Brian Taylor as a young, arrogant man projecting an off-putting and forced machismo.  His decision to make no appeal to connect with his audience comes from an astute observation of the value of the role.  David Ayer’s film is much more concerned about the more honest bond that exists between the members of a patrol unit.  The intent is to measure the constructed familial ties that exist within patrol units, the tie that holds together and protects the service men and women who serve and protect.

In his next role, Duncan Jones’ sci-fi thriller Source Code,  it is Gyllenhaal’s naked and accessible humanity that helps Colter Stevens carry more value than the theoretical physics on top of which the character exists.  Speculative dimension science, here, becomes a pedestal upon which emotional resonance and existential contemplation are displayed, all through measured expression centered within explosive action pieces.  Even in the film’s baseline reality, where Gyllenhaal’s character is a barely-alive ruined body, absent of limb and conscious life, small facial gestures are enough to initiate a hollow hurt in the heart of viewers.

In Prisoners and Enemy, two movies Gyllenhaal  filmed in parallel with up-and-coming director Denis Villenueve, the actor employees perhaps his greatest acting asset, his incomparably expressive face, and very little else to craft layers of narrative tension and silent intensity.  And then most recently with Nightcrawler’s Louis Bloom, Gyllenhaal created a character that mixes the inhuman transformation of Daniel Day Lewis’ most seminal work with the unexpected and uncomfortable villainry of Heath Ledger’s Joker. While I had issue with the narrative construct of the film, I can not refute the power of the uneasiness so expertly crafted by Gyllenhaal’s lingering cynical poetry.

And all this says nothing of his near-brilliance in early turns in Brokeback Mountain, Jarhead, and Zodiac.  Or how, in dozens of roles, he’s had only one naked miss (Prince of Persia, I have to be fair), even in his younger years as he was negotiating his value as a screen actor. It is through the strength of this resume that I become puzzled when Gyllenhaal’s name isn’t one of the first mentioned when the aforementioned question is Jake Gyllenhaalposed.

A Possible Explanation

The first theory I can come up with to explain the gap between accomplishment and appreciation is Gyllenhaal’s avoidance of commercially appealing roles.  Consider that he’s managed to avoid being involved in any Superhero movies or comic book adaptations, even though his age and appearance would make him a prime target of the casting agencies of such projects.

But that only explains so much, considering that both Joaquin Phoenix and Leonardo DiCaprio have also both avoided that flavor-of-the-decade trope. That got me thinking farther along the same notion.

Gyllenhaal doesn’t appear to appeal to anything, really.  He’s yet to accept a role that is a naked and shameless Oscar attempt (unless you count his Supporting nomination in Brokeback Mountain but I think we can all agree that Ang Lee’s film had ambitions that transcended even awards).  He doesn’t seek to raise eyebrows or isolate himself in his own loud artistry by enrolling continually in the theater of the weird and eccentric the way Joaquin Phoenix sometimes tends to.  And he doesn’t align himself exclusively with directors of legendary acclaim the way Leonardo DiCaprio has in recent times, a surefire way to ensure that one’s name is included every year in the conversations of acclaim and recognition.

Again, nothing against these comparative examples.  I’m a fan of every single actor and actress offered in response to my initial inquiry.  But the comparison of traceable ambitions certainly adds an element of intrigue to Gyllenhaal’s recent choices and effort.

Think about this:  End of Watch was only David Ayer’s third feature length film and his first measurable hit.  Source Code was Duncan Jones’ second full length film.  Prisoners and Enemy are the first American features for director Denis Villenueve. Gyllenhaal is collaborating with fresh perspective, visionaries of extremely varied vision.   This stirs an interesting perspective when paired with the actor’s unique approach.  It would seem that Gyllenhaal’s ambition is to create something new, to adjust and redefine the science and art of  acting, to use modern film in the purest way possible, mining sincerity and truth with himself as the tool.

Sometimes it’s a stock compliment, but it might not be as true with any other contemporary performer as it is here.   Jake Gyllenhaal cares deeply about his craft.  In fact, it seems his ambition exists in the vacuum of that craft.  So far, he has been determined to measure, improve, and validate his effort only against itself.  He role selection and performance display no concern toward his own position in awards races or critical acclaim, and yet he is at least the most interesting lead actor working right now.  And he’s getting better.

We can all admit how exciting that is.

Image Credit (Clockwise from top left):
Nightcrawler:  Open Road Films
Prisoners:  Warner Bros. Pictures
Brokeback Mountain:  Focus Features
End of Watch: Open Road Films
Source Code: Summit Entertainment
Enemy:  A24 Films