Top Five: Jake Gyllenhaal performances

With the impending release of Nightcrawler, and talk of yet another great Jake Gyllenhaal performance it seems a good time to look back at some of his best roles. Directed by Dan Gilroy Nightcrawler tells the story of Lou Bloom (Gyllenhaal) who becomes a ‘nightcrawler’, someone who takes photographs of graphic accidents and crimes to sell to local news. There have been some terrific reviews both for the film itself and Gyllenhaal in particular. It surely won’t be long until this performance will be included in these kinds of lists. Gyllenhaal has been acting for over 20 years but first came to prominence in 2001 with the release of Donnie Darko. Since then he has been consistently excellent whether as a leading man or a supporting player (he seems equally comfortable as both, a rarity in modern day Hollywood). Bring forth the countdown.

  1. Prisoners (2013)

Prisoners is the first of two films directed by Denis Villeneuve that will grace this list. It is also the more obvious of the two that appears first, the more ‘Hollywood’ if you will. The story of abducted children in Pennsylvania it stars Hugh Jackman as the father of one the missing children who ‘assists’ in the search. Sure Jackman gets the shouty more awards worthy role but it is Gyllenhaal who is more quietly effective as the police detective in charge of the investigation. The film is not nearly as good as it thinks it is but the performances are top notch. Jackman has received plenty of awards for his part but Gyllenhaal’s is arguably the more interesting part and he plays it more effectively. That is how these things go sometimes.

  1. Zodiac (2007)

Zodiac is the undisputed masterpiece of David Fincher’s career. It feels good to say it. It concerns the hunt for the Zodiac killer in California during the 60s and 70s. It is a crafty film, full of (mis)information just out of the reach of the characters. The urge to know traps these people; they are unable to move on in the vain hope that all of the pieces of the puzzle are revealed. Gyllenhaal plays Robert Graysmith, a cartoonist at the San Francisco Chronicle. Initially seen as a somewhat minor character in the story he became centre stage as the investigation drags on over the years. Gyllenhaal is terrific in the role as an obsessive who likes to solve puzzles but loses a lot in the process. He stands out in a film filled with great performances (Robert Downey Jr, Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards are all ace).

  1. Enemy (2015)

The second film directed by Denis Villeneuve on this list and the oddest one for a few reasons. Made before Prisoners and seen by much of the cinematic world Enemy is finally due to get a release in Ireland in early 2015. In reality this could be number 3 & 2 on the list as Gyllenhaal gives two excellent performances here. He plays a professor who one day sees an extra in a film that looks exactly like him. He promptly investigates and finally meets up with the doppelganger. Is it a long lost twin, some other relative or himself losing his mind? The genius of his performances is how skilfully he underplays both roles. There is no hysteria for one character to make it easier to differentiate. The film itself is excellent with a final shot that will linger with you for days.

  1. Donnie Darko (2001)

Or where it all began. Richard Kelly’s mind bending film still retains the power to impress even years later (we won’t mention the director’s cut, you shouldn’t either). Gyllenhaal stars as Donnie, a young man who begins to have visions about the end of the world. He is visited by a giant rabbit who leads him out of his house at night in a kind of sleepwalking daze. In any other film Donnie would be crazy, his family anxious and the film hysterical. But Kelly keeps it realistic (relatively) and even light for the most part and he is helped enormously by the central performance. Gyllenhaal plays Donnie as a nice kid, struggling but not bad. Loved by his parents he is also very smart. It is the grounding of this character that makes what comes after so effective. See it again and be entranced by such a natural performance amidst the weirdness of the narrative.

  1. Brokeback Mountain (2005)

Brokeback Mountain is Ang Lee’s masterpiece and one of the finest American films of the 21st century. Again Gyllenhaal is ostensibly the supporting actor (he was nominated for the Oscar in that category) but like most of these things there is little to differentiate between lead and support. Both himself and Heath Ledger share the screen time. The story concerns Ennis Del Mar (Ledger) and Jack Twist (Gyllenhaal) who are hired as sheep herders in Wyoming in the early 1960s. They fall in love but because of the time they live in they separate and each marries unhappily. They live for their occasional ‘fishing trips’ which take place over the years. Time stretches out and each character has their fair share of problems. But they keep other going. It is Gyllenhaal’s character who pushes for more. Of the two roles it is the one that is the more unlikeable and in another film that would perhaps have shone through. But the performance of Gyllenhaal means that the love he cannot control is what is bared. A heartbreaking performance (two of them, Ledger is also brilliant) in a profoundly beautiful film.