Jake Gyllenhaal doesn’t need a prosthetic nose or weird accent to build a character. The eyes have it. Communicating everything from bewildered sorrow in Donnie Darko to the pain of a forbidden love in Brokeback Mountain they are a window into the soul of his characters not the vacant reflections of a celebrity burning the candle at both ends. His latest film Nightcrawler does for the boulevards of Los Angeles what Scorsese’s Taxi Driver did for New York. It puts the audience back on the mean streets of the city of angels we saw behind the wheel with Ryan Gosling’s getaway driver in Drive. Gyllenhaal plays Lou Bloom, a wide-eyed dreamer and sociopath drawn to the nocturnal world of freelance crime journalism.
Armed with a digital video camera and a police radio scanner he joins the race to be the first at the scene when street gangs battle and horrific accidents occur. It’s ambulance chasing on another level as the right footage is worth thousands of dollars to TV news stations desperate for the next gory prime time exclusive – because “if it bleeds it leads”. But when Bloom starts trespassing on crime scenes and making the news not chasing it, Dan Gilroy’s film enters a darker realm… Think American Psycho meets Taxi Driver as Bloom’s ambition sees him smash his moral compass in the chase for ratings while the dollar signs in his eyes reflect the twisted morals of a subverted American dream. He says of his job: “I like to say that if you’re seeing me, you’re having the worst day of your life.”
Like DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort in Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, Bloom’s focus knows no barriers as Gilroy’s story careers to a chilling climax made unpredictable and totally compelling by Gyllenhaal’s masterclass. He brings emotional depth to an edgy role but it’s the emotion of uncertainty. Bloom is antagonist and protagonist, his voiceover narrating twists and turns that become ever more macabre. The film debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this month. See it and you’ll see why a Halloween release date is so fitting.
Judging by his rom-com outing in Love & Other Drugs, girls like him and with hard hitting emotional cop drama End of Watch guys want to be like him. Gyllenhaal announced his talent with a complex performance as a troubled teen tormented by sinister visions of an evil rabbit in the genre-mashing 2001 cult classic Donnie Darko. Richard Kelly’s surreal film charts Donnie’s bizarre odyssey as he survives a freak accident and questions the meaning of life, the universe and everything.
Gyllenhaal came of age in 2005’s Jarhead based on the book by former US Marine Anthony Swofford. Sam ‘Skyfall‘ Mendes’ film follows the fate of sniper Swofford (Gyllenhaal) when he is paired with target spotter Troy (Peter Sarsgaard) as the Gulf War breaks out in the Middle East in 1991. A Full Metal Jacket for the noughties it marked the moment when Gyllenhaal ‘put away childish things’ and moved on from popcorn films like The Day After Tomorrow. He earned his only Oscar nomination to date that same year for Brokeback Mountain. In Ang Lee’s adaptation of Annie Proulx’s short story, Gyllenhaal starred with the late Heath Ledger. The pair played cowboys who meet while herding cattle in 1963. The drama reveals their complex romantic entanglement across two decades as Jack (Gyllenhaal) comes to terms with everything he and Ennis (Ledger) have lost.
Working with great directors has clearly helped his development and being cast in David Fincher’s Zodiac proved a perfect foil for his edgy vulnerability. Based on the true story of newspaper cartoonist turned amateur sleuth (and later a true crime author) Fincher’s film focuses on Robert Graysmith’s obsession with tracking the Zodiac serial killer in ’70s San Francisco. And a counterpoint to introspective characters like Graysmith and Donnie Darko, Gyllenhaal can play the macho guy with aplomb. David ‘Training Day‘ Ayer cast Gyllenhaal as LAPD cop Brian Taylor. He takes to the streets with partner Mike Zavala (Michael Pena) in 2012’s uncompromising look at inner city policing, End of Watch. It’s an adrenalized piece of cinema verite led by an actor who takes us on a ride along primed by fear.
Gyllenhaal may not be as prolific as other actors his age but being choosy about the roles he plays (Dastan in computer game spin-off Prince of Persia aside) shows a thought process behind career choices not concerned with just bagging a hero franchise and hitting paydirt. Taking the part of a morally bankrupt monster like Lou Bloom in Nightcrawler is a logical move for an actor seemingly eager to shed the trappings of Hollywood vanity to play anti-heroes and awkward antagonists. His time for awards recognition and a golden Oscar statuette has surely come.
Nightcrawler is released in cinemas October 31