“What do you mean my reviews have ‘fallen off’?”, Jake Gyllenhaal’s art critic Morf Vandewalt snaps defensively in the latest entry into the actor’s impressive filmography, Velvet Buzzsaw. It’s been four years now since the end of Gyllenhaal’s almost unbelievable three-film streak – each featuring dark, morally searching performances. With Denis Villeneuve, the one-two punch of Prisoners and Enemy allowed Gyllenhaal to explore obsession, and in Dan Gilroy’s intense Nightcrawler, the actor gave probably his best performance to date. Gyllenhaal’s astonishing acting across these films wasn’t just by coincidence. Directly prior to this streak, the actor shined in underappreciated hits: shaky-cam police thriller End of Watch, the delightfully modest sci-fi Source Code, and even indie dramedy Love and Other Drugs. By 2014, Jake Gyllenhaal had been climbing a steady slope to the top of his game, making wise choices and delivering unparalleled emotion and supressed mania for each role. But since the credits rolled on Nightcrawler’s creepy cameraman Louis Bloom, what has happened to the best actor in Hollywood?
Velvet Buzzsaw marks Gyllenhaal’s ninth feature to be released since 2014, with another two scheduled to drop in the next three months. While the quality of each of these pictures can be debated, the undeniable fact remains that nothing has hit quite as hard as those few films Gyllenhaal made four years ago. What was the last film he made that really showed off an incredible performance? And in answering that, can Gyllenhaal still be considered, as he is by some, one of the best actors currently working? Most worryingly of all for fans: was Nightcrawler really the peak of Gyllenhaal’s career?
It seems unfair to count David O. Russell’s universally-panned Accidental Love in this list, seeing as it was filmed years earlier than its 2015 release date might suggest. Featuring a visibly younger Gyllenhaal, clearly in the stage of his career predating his 2010 maturation, the project eventually saw Russell remove his name from the credits, and the less said about it, the better. As such, it is probably best to consider the actor’s follow up to Nightcrawler to be Southpaw, Antoine Fuqua’s emotional genre piece. Playing grieving boxer Bobby, fighting his way back to the top, the role made sense in a way. Shaking off the disappointment of not receiving an Oscar nomination the previous year, perhaps this was Gyllenhaal beginning to chase awards glory; boxers after all have famously been an Academy pleaser – just ask Jake La Motta or Rocky Balboa.
But Southpaw also represented a warning sign for Gyllenhaal’s role choices to come. Fuqua’s direction is far from original or impressive, from his pop-star casting to the inevitable training montage. Still, Gyllenhaal’s performance deserves recognition, for his tragic chemistry with on-screen wife Maureen, played by Rachel McAdams, and for nailing that unwavering determination every cinematic boxer seems to share. It’s hard to stifle tears when Bobby breaks down in a courtroom, a tribute to Gyllenhaal’s talent despite a lacklustre script. Jumping ahead to 2017’s Stronger, a pattern starts to form. Playing Boston Marathon bombing survivor Jeff Bauman, Gyllenhaal electrifies a film that is otherwise predictable, yet another story of struggle against overwhelming adversity. Though it may sound harsh to condemn a true story in such fashion, it is the fault of director David Gordon Green in failing to deliver something interesting or new, and Bauman’s life comes off as another attempt for Gyllenhaal to secure shiny prizes. Stronger failed to garner the actor with such accolades.
Outside of these two films, though, Gyllenhaal’s choices don’t suggest an obsession with Academy recognition. If Jean-Marc Vallée’s impressive Demolition is anything to go by, Gyllenhaal seems to be more focused on playing characters that represent a challenge for him. As grieving Davis, smashing down his house to the repeated refrain of ‘Crazy on You’ by Heart, Gyllenhaal captures total helplessness, and makes us feel every blow. Sadly, Demolition is a film stylistically limited by its own premise, and never approaches brilliance. Only one feature in the period post Nightcrawler has perhaps managed to reach the heights of that fantastic streak. Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals is a mesmerising masterpiece, and though Gyllenhaal is just one of an impeccable ensemble, he never feels lost in the crowd. Ford masterfully pinpoints him as the audience’s surrogate – the pain behind Tony Hastings’ eyes tints every artfully framed shot with palpable sadness. Nocturnal Animals, released in 2016, is the only film of the latter 2010s to truly make use of Gyllenhaal’s ability to emote and conjure empathy. Rightfully, his work was met with a Bafta nomination.
If character choices such as Tony Hastings and Louis Bloom are to be admired, there are other roles that must be outright questioned, particularly with some of the actor’s less emotional performances. Whether set in deep space or in snowy mountains, disaster films are a rough area for Gyllenhaal, who gets lost amid large casts and predictable plots. The scripts of these films just don’t give him enough to play with: there is clearly something in the character that the actor is interested in exploring, but the genre of the piece cuts short Gyllenhaal’s time to do so. In 2015’s Everest, Gyllenhaal’s believable cockiness adds colour to an otherwise bland set of characters, but shamefully it is his only recent role that feels like it could have been played equally well by another actor. This is a huge disappointment for anyone used to Jake’s unique screen presence, only worsened by the fact that 2017’s Alien-remake-in-all-but-name Life repeated Everest’s mistake in casting him in a role written to be forgotten.
Gyllenhaal’s participation in disaster films seems like a double misstep, but not simply because Gyllenhaal isn’t playing the leading role. In fact, the actor has shone in supporting roles of late, most notably in last year’s Wildlife. As with Villeneuve, Vallée and Ford, Gyllenhaal is at his best when a capable director knows how to use him. For his directorial debut, actor Paul Dano wonderfully balances the performances of his starry cast, playing Gyllenhaal off against Carey Mulligan’s stubborn drive. Once again the actor’s eyes give away his crippling desperation. Meanwhile opening this week, Jacques Audiard’s The Sisters Brothers once again places Gyllenhaal in a supporting position – his struggle with morality perfectly complementing the inherent differences between the titular brothers.
A final category that the actor’s roles fall into is the outlandish, larger-than-life performances of Okja and Velvet Buzzsaw. Certainly each film has deeper meaning behind the shallowness of the characters that Gyllenhaal plays, but in both instances he shows his intelligence as an actor: to find a thread of reality that grounds his absurd affectations.
It is easy to question Gyllenhaal’s judgement concerning the projects he has chosen in the last few years. Despite this, his capability and the quality of his performances has never really wavered, even if some better directors and tighter scripts are required to really unleash his potential. Perhaps the next four years will spell further success than these last four: Gyllenhaal passed on a big-budget comic book adaptation, Suicide Squad, back in 2015, so something about Spider-Man: Far From Home must have piqued his interest. Mistreatment of the Mysterio character aside, it is hard to guess at much from the trailer, except to say that it is exciting to see the actor once again pushing himself out of his comfort zone. With any luck, Jake Gyllenhaal will continue to star in multiple releases every year, lending his remarkable talent to leading and supporting roles. After all, as unquestionably proven in stunning stylised dramas and mediocre disaster-pieces alike, his performances have certainly not “fallen off”.