This weekend’s debut of “Velvet Buzzsaw” (now playing on Netflix), Jake Gyllenhaal confirms his place as one of the most exciting and unpredictable actors working today. The art world satire/blood-and-guts horror thriller is another left turn from an actor whose career is made almost entirely of left turns. And so, to celebrate Gyllenhaal and the release of “Velvet Buzzsaw,” we look back at 11 of his most essential performances.
'Donnie Darko' (2001)
Gyllenhaal’s big breakthrough came in the form of Richard Kelly’s instant cult classic, a movie that never gained commercial success but is one of the most quotable midnight movies in recent memory. Gyllenhaal plays the titular character, a schizophrenic teen haunted by visions of the end of the world … and it just gets weirder from there. In a less assured actor’s hands, Kelly’s metaphysical tangents and apocalyptic conundrums would have been gobbledygook. But Gyllenhaal didn’t make you believe; he made you feel.
‘Brokeback Mountain’ (2005)
Just four years after “Donnie Darko,” Gyllenhaal cemented his place as one of the most exciting American actors of his generation in Ang Lee’s soulful, Oscar-winning “Brokeback Mountain.” As a cowboy grappling with his romance with another cowboy (an equally impressive Heath Ledger), Gyllenhaal pulled off a daring feat that he made look positively easy. This is a character who was rugged, conflicted and ultimately tragic, a character whose power lied in the symbolic as much as the personal. (Gyllenhaal was rightfully nominated for the Academy Award for his performance.)
David Fincher’s 2007 is a stone-cold masterpiece and Gyllenhaal’s performance is its beating heart. As San Fransisco cartoonist Robert Graysmith, Gyllenhaal brings a much-needed warmth to the epic saga of how a single serial killer consumed countless lives in California in the late 60s and early 70s. Gyllenhaal’s experience on the film wasn’t a pleasant one (he told the NY Times that Fincher likes to “paint with actors”) but it ultimately produced one of Gyllenhaal’s funniest, most lived-in performances ever.
‘Source Code’ (2011)
Gyllenhaal is in fully buggy-eyed sci-fi mode for Duncan Jones’ follow-up to his hugely influential debut “Moon.” In “Source Code,” Gyllenhaal plays a US Army pilot who, upon boarding a commuter train outside of Chicago, is involved in a terrorist bombing. He is then, through mysterious circumstances, asked to relive the bombing again and again and again in an attempt to locate the terrorist responsible. Despite a cumbersome high concept and dopey twist ending, you always believe what you’re seeing, largely thanks to Gyllenhaal’s commitment to the role.
One of Gyllenhaal’s great strengths is that he’s a character actor burdened with leading man looks. This lets him take charge of any movie he’s in but also gives him a chameleonic ability to also slip into the background of a larger ensemble. In Denis Villeneuve’s breathless thriller, Gyllenhaal plays a twitchy detective assigned to a child abduction case. Not only is Gyllenhaal’s storyline somewhat secondary (to the main plot about a pair of parents exacting their own biblical revenge against who they think are responsible) but he still manages to steal the show.
The same year that the big-budget “Prisoners” was released, Gyllenhaal’s other team-up with Villeneuve came out, a much smaller, much stranger affair that was just as thrilling. In “Enemy,” Gyllenhaal plays a straight-laced father-to-be who discovers a man who is his exact double. When they decide to swap lives, things get even more metaphysically unglued, leading to one of the most final arresting final shots in recent memory. The less you know going into it, the better … but just watch it. You won’t be sorry.
In Dan Gilroy’s audacious directorial debut, Gyllenhaal (who also produced) plays a stringer who chases after accidents and violent crimes to sell the footage to local television broadcasts. It’s a testament to Gyllenhaal’s inherent likability that you go on this dark odyssey with him, never once questioning why you’re watching such morally reprehensible stuff. As the movie veers into its third act, it becomes almost uncomfortably bleak, but don’t worry, Jake is there for you.
‘Nocturnal Animals’ (2016)
Tom Ford’s sophomore feature isn’t for everybody, that’s for damn sure. But for those adventurous enough to take the ride, well, chances are they’ll be rewarded. Gyllenhaal plays Amy Adams’ estranged husband, who works through the death of their relationship by writing a sensationalistic, very violent novel, which he sends to Adams. “Nocturnal Animals” is delineated by the world of the story and the “real world,” with Gyllenhaal portraying characters in both. It’s his inherent emotionality that gives the story weight. He leads you through the gore.
Bong-joon Ho’s Netflix sensation, about a genetically modified “super-pig” and the evil forces surrounding its creation and exploitation, is a sometimes-gentle, sometimes-horrifying story of a young girl and her creature companion. (Think “E.T.,” with a strong PETA bent.) But nothing will prepare you for Gyllenhaal’s performance as Johnny Wilcox, a kind of Jack Hanna-on-amphetamines zoologist/TV personality, who is drawn into Okja’s story. Everything about the character, from his clothes to his mustache to his squeaky, high-pitched voice is a choice, and Gyllenhaal commits brilliantly. This might be the most full-on performance of his entire career.
It’s absolutely shocking that Gyllenhaal didn’t an Oscar nomination for this weirdly overlooked film. As Jeff Bauman, an average Boston schlub who becomes a symbol of the Boston Strong movement after the marathon bombing took both if his legs, Gyllenhaal gives an incredibly real, incredibly vulnerable performance that is all the more impressive for being based on a real-life person. Emotionally gripping and deeply felt, this is one of his greatest performances and one of his most criminally under-seen.
‘The Sisters Brothers’ (2018)
Unusual western “The Sisters Brothers” made headlines last year but not for the reasons you’d expect. This was a movie that cost $40 million to make and earned back an infinitesimal fraction of that back. And it’s a shame, too, because the movie is brilliant. “The Sisters Brothers” found Gyllenhaal back in supporting man role, this time playing a confederate of a pair of killers (Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly), who are tracking a man who supposedly has the ability to locate gold (Riz Ahmed). Gyllenhaal brings his usual sensitivity to a role that could have just been played as an old timey weirdo.