Top Performances is a recurring feature in which we definitively handpick the very best performances from an iconic actor or actress.
With this week’s Nightcrawler, Jake Gyllenhaal may just solidify himself as one of America’s most exciting and dangerous young actors. Delivering a lean, feral performance as an accident-chasing cameraman bent on becoming a full-fledged journalist, the actor’s come a long way from his boyish beginnings. He’s a grown man now, and a feisty talent to boot, fearless in his role selection. Gyllenhaal can be a suave, dapper leading man or a down-in-the-dirt dude trying to find his way in the world.
Whatever happened to the doe-eyed, optimistic, and eager young Homer Hickam of October Sky? A lifetime of fascinating role choices and attitude adjustments, that’s what happened. To celebrate the rollicking Nightcrawler and Gyllenhaal’s wild performance, the Consequence of Sound staff have taken a look back at Gyllenhaal’s greatest hits. Here are his top 10 performances from the last 15 years.
10. Jamie Randall
Love & Other Drugs (2010)
OK, OK. So Edward Zwick’s film about the fun, carefree, sexy love story between a mostly amoral pharmaceutical salesman and a comely young woman with onset Parkinson’s doesn’t work all that often. The film is a tonal mess from start to finish, moving wildly from hard melodrama to envelope-pushing sex on a near-constant basis to a handful of genuinely affectionate moments with whatever the opposite of ease is. Even so, there are points in Love & Other Drugs that work effortlessly, and most of that success can be attributed to Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway as the unusually star-crossed leads. Their scenes together lend the film, and particularly Hathaway’s portrayal of a woman cursed with an incurable disease far too soon in life, an emotional resonance that extends beyond the pages of its ham-fisted screenplay. Gyllenhaal is given a lot of modes to play in one film, but he does it ably and at a time when he was only beginning to emerge as a true leading man.
Genuine Gyllenhaal: When his Jamie approaches her Maggie as she prepares to bus a small battalion of senior citizens to Canada for cheaper drugs. Their ensuing argument about whether they should even bother being together is oddly touching and an emotional high point for a movie that could’ve stood to aim for more of them.
09. Anthony Swofford
Sam Mendes’ criminally underrated 2005 Gulf War I film, Jarhead, still stands as one of Gyllenhaal’s most skilled early performances. A Full Metal Jacket-style inquiry into exactly what war does to the hearts of decent men, Jarhead follows Gyllenhaal as Anthony Swofford, an eventual Marine sniper who “got lost on the way to college.” The film is less about the glories of war than the banalities in between, where highly-trained operatives spend endless hours milling about, performing routine maintenance, wondering about their lovers back home, and trying to remain sane if possible. As Swofford spends ever more time in the desert, he’s slowly pushed to the extremes of his mind, particularly when he becomes suspicious that he too will return home to a girlfriend who’s moved on and an uncertain future. Mendes keeps the focus on the human element in a way few war films truly do, and it makes for a harrowing portrait that never judges or condemns. It simply gazes over the harshness of war and what it does to the minds of those who carry it out.
Genuine Gyllenhaal: When Swofford’s inevitable nervous breakdown finally comes, courtesy of a demotion by Staff Sargeant Sykes (Jamie Foxx) and a burst of paranoia, he first threatens to murder another member of his squadron and then turns the rifle back on himself, begging for a merciful exit. And that’s not even the film’s emotional nadir.
08. Tommy Cahill
While Brothers may have been another dip in Jim Sheridan’s graceful decline over the last decade, it couldn’t stop Jake Gyllenhaal’s star-studded rise. An American remake of Susanne Bier’s 2004 Danish hit, Brødre, Sheridan’s Brothers was a movie of the week loaded with good-looking, up-and-coming talent and anti-Iraq war sentiment.
While the film’s showboat was Tobey Maguire as Sam, the PTSD-affected army man coming home, Gyllenhaal deserves some praise for being the affable, fuck-up little brother, Tommy. In a shouting match, kitchen sink melodrama, Gyllenhaal gets to bring a degree of charm: both a wiseass and a voice of reason. To note, Gyllenhaal apparently learned of Brokeback Mountain co-star and friend Heath Ledger’s death while filming. He walked off set mid-scene and came back to finish the scene two days later. It’s likely not a stretch to see Tommy’s loss and melancholy being informed by Gyllenhaal’s real grieving.
Genuine Gyllenhaal: As we watch Sam violently collapse in front of his family, Tommy has to grow up fast and try to soothe his older brother. It was a soft-spoken, strongly present step forward for Jake.
07. Homer Hickam
October Sky (1999)
In his first lead role, Gyllenhaal played the teenaged Homer Hickam, the West Virginia native who would go on to be a revered NASA engineer. Living in a coal-mining town with an old-guard father (Chris Cooper), Homer is expected to follow in Dad’s and seemingly everyone else’s subterranean footsteps. His life is changed for good in October 1957 when the Soviet Union launches Sputnik 1, thus commencing the Space Age. With help from friends, including Chris Owen’s super-nerd Quentin (who makes The Big Bang Theory’s Leonard Hofstadter look like … well, like Jake Gyllenhaal, looks-wise), Homer builds his engineering knowledge from the ground up, first impressing his town with awe-inspiring DIY rocket launches and then entering a science fair that might just be his ticket out of his town’s monotony. Perpetually smiley, his enthusiasm for space travel is contagious.
Genuine Gyllenhaal: One of the first things we learn about Homer is that he is a terrible, terrible football player, repeatedly getting flattened by a defensive player when he tries his hand at playing on the offensive line. “Homer, you sure got guts,” says the coach, “but you gotta know when to quit.” He obliges, but, of course, he’s more stubborn when it comes to his space dreams.
06. Donnie Darko
Donnie Darko (2001)
Two years after he turned heads as a future rocket scientist, Gyllenhaal would win over the hearts of millions with his iconic cult performance as the titular hero of Richard Kelly’s supernatural drama, Donnie Darko. Burdened with a countdown leading to the end of the world, the teenaged insomniac shuffles through a series of bizarre events, from flooding his school to stabbing his mirror with a knife to evading a loose airplane engine. Yet, despite a stellar ensemble cast, which includes everyone from Patrick Swayze to Drew Barrymore to Holmes Osborne, Gyllenhaal chews up the gorgeous late ’80s scenery, becoming the sort of cynical anti-hero that every teenager aspires to be. Funny, spooky, and endearing, this performance sold Hollywood on the former City Slickers brat.
Genuine Gyllenhaal: Well, there’s the dining room argument with his real-life sister, Maggie. That tear-filled admission to his therapist comes to mind. But really, nothing tops his drunken, meme-worthy monologue about The Smurfs, in which he concludes: “That’s what’s so illogical about being a Smurf … I mean, what’s the point of living … if you don’t have a dick.”
05. Detective Loki
Detective Loki’s a good man in a bad time. He sports a clean-cut hairdo, tight, likely cheap clothes, and an eye twitch you could get from zero sleep and an overflowing work folder. Loki may not be a gifted cop, or even the best man for a missing victims case, but you know he’s trying his damnedest. Maybe he has a guilty conscience, something deep and dark within, which drives his penance-like commitment to policing. He’s gotta keep his cool, or else he’ll be a degenerate like the rest.
Gyllenhaal plumbed some of his deepest recesses last year as Loki in Denis Villeneuve’s sprawling, knock-out thriller Prisoners. He’s taken to domestically, deeply evil places, with a level of exhaustion not seen by Jake until last year. He looked the part, embodying decency marred by his circumstances.
Genuine Gyllenhaal: Loki hits a dead end with his work after trying so very hard to make some headway finding kidnapped children. When his hunt goes cold, he lashes out at a desk, briefly, defeatedly. Then he goes back to work.
04. Jack Twist
Brokeback Mountain (2005)
2005 was a pretty important year for Gyllenhaal in general. In addition to his powerful, memorable turn in Jarhead, there was also Brokeback Mountain, Ang Lee’s game-changing love story about two cattle ranchers named Jack (Gyllenhaal) and Ennis (Heath Ledger) who meet in Wyoming in 1963 when hired to embark on a summer-long sheep herding. There they learn things about themselves that they’re not sure how to deal with, and that society will hardly accept, and from there Brokeback chronicles two decades in the lives of a pair of men living with a profound, possibly dangerous secret. It’s a measure of how important the film ended up being to the larger dialogue of queerness on film that even the title became a sort of shorthand for idiots bent on cracking wise about Lee’s poignant (if agonizing) love story, to say nothing of the discussion it ignited about why we don’t see two men fall in love onscreen more often. (It’s one we’re all still having, no less.) And Gyllenhaal is the heart of the film, his Jack Twist a generally sweet, idealistic man born a few decades too early for his world.
Genuine Gylllenhaal: It’s beyond melodramatic, to be sure, but the scene in which Gyllenhaal and Ledger reunite in a flurry of passion starts off sensual and turns heartbreaking when it’s revealed that their kiss wasn’t as private as they thought. But in that moment, it’s simply a portrait of two long-lost lovers reuniting, furiously so.
03. Robert Graysmith
In David Fincher’s Zodiac, as in American crime history, Robert Graysmith is a cartoonist at The San Francisco Chronicle when the title killer begins his spree and PR antics, sending letters to local newspaper editors and threatening to kill more victims if they don’t cooperate with his wishes. Instead of leaving the case to authorities (most notably Mark Ruffalo as David Toschi, the inspector on whom Steve McQueen’s Frank Bullitt and Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty” Harry Callahan were based) and crime reporters (including Robert Downey, Jr.’s Hunter S. Thompson-like Paul Avery), Graysmith is enamored with the clues the Zodiac offers to the public. He’s a humble, vaguely neurotic character right down to his favorite drink, the supposedly sissy Aqua Velva. Gyllenhaal, then, is tasked with embodying all that nerdiness. No awards, but being the lead role in what’s arguably Fincher’s best film will stand as one of the actor’s finest hours — or nearly three of them, as the case may be.
Genuine Gyllenhaal: Graysmith’s interest in the Zodiac is humorously apparent when he trails Avery in the Chronicle office, distracting the increasingly boozy reporter from his duties. “Jesus Harold Christ on rubber crutches, Bobby!” Avery goes. “What are you doing? You’re doing that thing, the thing we discussed, the thing I don’t like. Starts with an ‘L'”: looming.
02. Brian Taylor
End of Watch (2012)
Not to over-generalize, but any old buddy cop flick will always have its fair share of shoot-outs and ball-busting banter. Sometimes it’s a blast (48 hrs., Lethal Weapon, Turner & Hooch), and a lot of the time you wish the duo on screen would turn in their badges immediately (Bad Boys, K-9, Rush Hour, movies where anyone working with Steven Seagal or Chuck Norris dies on the spot). Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña in End of Watch are cops for the hall of fame.
What starts in found footage gimmickry takes a surprisingly deep and powerful stand as one of the finest action films of the last decade. David Ayer’s End of Watch is a dynamite copper: intense, emotional, honest, and exciting. It’s one of Gyllenhaal’s most breathtaking works. Gyllenhaal and Peña did five months of ride-alongs, even improvising much of their dialogue, and it really elevates the material. The guys have a certain level of rapport, guts, and inarticulate shorthand that boosts an already creatively-crafted film. When they’re stuck in a shoot-out, pissing off cartels, or just meeting each other’s loved ones, you care. You really care about these cops. That’s good chemistry.
Genuine Gyllenhaal: Just watch Gyllenhaal act more naturally than he has his whole career, perfectly playing off his squad-mate, making character development count, as the duo snipe at each other before things get hot. It’s little moments like these that make the tough stuff and bromance count.
01. Lou Bloom
For Dan Gilroy’s directorial debut, Gyllenhaal tore a page out of Christian Bale’s approach to acting by tackling a controversial role and shedding over 20 pounds. As the manic and acerbic cameraman Lou Bloom, Gyllenhaal assumes the identity of a terrifying enigma, who chases down his dreams of success at any cost. For two hours, we anxiously watch as he manipulates his way up the ranks of a Los Angeles news station. It’s a performance that starts out curious and takes a startling turn towards the uncomfortable, never wavering in its intensity.
Though, it’s hard not to root for his cause, even while he’s crossing the line. Gyllenhaal’s a creep through and through — those eyes, what the hell happened to his eyes — but there’s a sophisticated charm beneath his android-esque demeanor that’s intriguing in the same vein as Jessie Eisenberg’s portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network. Whether or not he can qualify as an anti-hero is up for debate, but morality aside, the performance itself is worth applauding. If there’s any justice, he’ll get at least a nomination next year.
Genuine Gyllenhaal: His manic flare-up at home makes for choice trailer candy, but the nerves really start rattling during his showdown over Mexican food with Rene Russo’s Nina Romina. Without spoiling too much, it’s the eeriest scene to feature a margarita.