Jake Gyllenhaal’s Other Good Performance

Published on November 28th, 2016

Alex writes about Jake Gyllenhaal, Leonardo DiCaprio, and perspective.

Titus: “Ew. Stop. You’re a worse actor than Cate Blanchett.”
Mikey: “What? She’s great.”
Titus: “Is she? Or is she just tall?”
-Titus Andromedon, rethinking existence

This is a joke from The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, a joke that makes me chuckle every time I think about it, for reasons mostly unrelated to Cate Blanchett. Titus makes me chuckle because Titus impeccably describes the folly of perspective.

I like Jake Gyllenhaal. I am certain of this, and I have felt this way since perhaps as early as 2002, but certainly by 2005. Sitting in a movie theatre watching Gyllenhaal’s latest performance in Nocturnal Animals, though, I started to think maybe I shouldn’t.

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As Leonardo DiCaprio strutted off the stage following his acceptance speech at the Oscars this year, I laughed at the triumphant confidence with which he stepped. “This is finally mine now,” he seemed to be thinking, clutching his award, “And I fucking nailed that (pre-written) speech.” It is, and he did.

Like everything else in DiCaprio’s life in front of the camera, his speech seemed almost comically over-rehearsed. It didn’t sound like somebody giving an impassioned plea for us to pay attention to climate change so much as it sounded like somebody’s impersonation of how that type of person would sound. Like his performance in The Revenant, Leo had to make sure we all knew how much he cared about what was happening on our screens, whether he was trying to murder Tom Hardy or convincing us on his thoughts about the future of the planet.

For as long as I can recall, Leonardo DiCaprio has annoyed me immensely. Leo the celebrity was never much of a problem, but Mr. DiCaprio the thespian drove me bonkers. I never understood the appeal, and I (mostly) still don’t. I didn’t like him in The Revenant, just like I didn’t enjoy his work in so much that preceded it. His performance in Blood Diamond seemed like the work of a small child who was so excited to finally be able to pretend he was tough. I once said Leo’s performance in Inception “didn’t ruin the film,” and to that point it was the nicest thing I had ever said about him. Things started to change as he trounced off the Kodak Theatre stage, though.

It all happened with a backstage video, as it does. In this video, shot after the Oscars ceremony, DiCaprio is waiting across a bar as a woman engraves his Best Actor award. He is as polite as you would expect a superstar surrounded by one hundred cameras to be, but what comes across in DiCaprio’s face throughout is something that doesn’t appear in many of his performances: humanity. He looks like a human who is happy to be where he is. For once, Leo figured out how to let his slicked back hair down without letting a strand out of place.

As he makes small talk with the woman across from him, DiCaprio cracks a mediocre joke, and seems genuinely surprised that there is a maintenance system for his newly acquired prized possession. As his trophy is returned to him, he flicks back over into calm superstar mode, but for a moment there was a person behind the award-hunting superstar.

“I think I might like Leonardo DiCaprio,” I remember thinking to myself. It happened like that.

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“I think I might hate Jake Gyllenhaal,” I remember thinking to myself. It happened like that.

As Nocturnal Animals – no spoilers to follow, calm down, although I will say at the end Amy Adams colonizes Mars – continued to play out before me, I found myself going through an assault of self-imposed questions that an 8am screening can bring out of a viewer. Did I only like Jake Gyllenhaal because he always seems to be teetering on the edge of entering the awards season A-list? Was he merely somebody I could claim was a good actor while also retaining a hold on my own desire to remain selective? Was Gyllenhaal actually good in Nightcrawler, or am I making this all up on my own?

The film continued. Gyllenhaal continued to be a very serious man; there was much yelling. He jeered, he jutted his jaw, he cried. He looked pained, as he always does. And for the first time in the case of this particular performer, I started rolling my eyes. It was a reversal of something I had been thinking for over a decade… What if I was wrong this whole time?

Par example: I saw Prisoners in 2013, immediately realizing I should have been paying attention to Denis Villeneuve’s work much earlier. In Prisoners, though, Gyllenhaal plays a detective in charge of the kidnapping case in question, and how Jakey G chooses to play this process is decidedly Gyllenhaalian. Throughout the film, Detective Loki has a persistent tick: he blinks too hard, pretty much all the time. What I assumed was that this was supposed to hint at some trauma in Loki’s background, trauma Loki was trying to finally put to rest as he helped Hugh Jackman get his kid back.

I wasn’t sure how I felt about Gyllenhaal’s performance at the time. The idea seemed a little obvious, but since it was coming from somebody I trusted, I figured it couldn’t hurt to assume he was right. But in thinking about this performance recently, I came to a conclusion that I am certain is correct: had Leonardo DiCaprio given that exact same performance, I would have despised it. It would have been Body of Lies all over again, with Leo putting the phone receiver directly to his mouth eight fucking times over the course of the film. The Loki Tick seems like something DiCaprio would do, just so we all knew how hard he was trying to make us feel for him. But when Gyllenhaal did it, I thought, “Oh, such a choice. What an incomparable thespian.”

I had appreciated Jake Gyllenhaal for so long, and disliked Leonardo DiCaprio for much longer. Even though I knew they were doing pretty much the same thing, one seemed infinitely easier to hate than the other. And this is what I thought for years. I watched Gyllenhaal as a Gulf War soldier, a cowboy, Tobey Maguire’s brother, and an obsessive cartoonist. I thought he was good in all of these movies, with the exception of that scene in Brothers where he eats his dinner like a maniac. There were lesser performances mixed in there, but you could mostly see the reason behind them – we’re all capitalists at heart, so sometimes we have to appear in Roland Emmerich films. Meanwhile, I hated pretty much every performance Leo gave over a comparable period. I could like the movies he was in, but – until The Wolf of Wall Street – there was no movie I felt Leo’s performance improved. Which seems crazy when thinking about the man who is considered Hollywood’s finest lead actor whenever Daniel Day-Lewis is hibernating in his Irish cave.

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Jake Gyllenhaal, like Leonardo DiCaprio, has been acting for about as long as I can remember (albeit almost exclusively in less famous films). Gyllenhaal played a kid in City Slickers, and he guest starred on an episode of Homicide: Life on the Street that I vaguely recall seeing as a youth. In 1999, he was (more or less) the lead in October Sky, a movie I thought was okay when I was thirteen but will surely never think of again after I finish this sentence. Gyllenhaal’s most notable early role is Donnie Darko, mostly because a collection of young, as-yet-unbranded Millennials were willing to become obsessed with any vaguely entertaining movie about time travel. Gyllenhaal played a variety of training wheels roles of seriousness, with varying degrees of success.

His eventual breakthrough as a dramatic performer came in 2005, when Ang Lee and Sam Mendes simultaneously decided Gyllenhaal was ready to be in prestige dramas (as these were prestige directors, making prestigious decisions). This is where the growling, scowling Gyllenhaal begins, as Anthony Swofford and Jack Twist, growling and scowling about war, homophobia, the first Bush administration, and (to a lesser extent) cattle. Gyllenhaal was Oscar nominated for his performance as Twist, and a new world of continued prestige opened up to him.

This is the world Gyllenhaal is still in today. He has been living in a post-Brokeback afterglow for a decade and – since his performances keep impressing the correct people – he won’t be leaving it soon. But Brokeback Mountain set out the template for how Gyllenhaal would be seen to a certain type of person (which in this case, obviously includes me). In discussing Brokeback Mountain, one thing became readily apparent: you talk about Heath Ledger before you talk about anything else.

“Anne Hathaway has transitioned away from Disney movies into ones where she takes her top off. Say what you will about Mia Thermopolis, but she doesn’t take half measures,” you could say. Perhaps you could follow it with, “I can’t believe the dude that made this movie also made that piece of shit Hulk movie.” And, of course, you could say, “It sure seems like Donnie Darko is doing alright for himself.” Any of these opinions are acceptable points to ponder, and I pondered said points in 2005, but not before I thought about Ledger’s performance. That’s just how it worked.

Since then, Gyllenhaal – with the exception of Everest, where he plays a surprisingly small role – has exclusively played leads or co-leads. This is not a bad thing in any capacity; again, I like Jake Gyllenhaal. When he plays the lead in a film I am immediately more likely to see that piece of cinema. If Tobey Maguire had been the lead in Southpaw, there’s no way I would have watched it; I sat through that piece of shit because I trusted Jakey G. But it has been a decade now, and perhaps it’s entirely possible that his act is starting to tire.

If I were to pontificate on Gyllenhaal’s mindset as he chooses a role – aside from obvious calculations like, “Do I really want to work with David Ayer? He might be a lunatic.” – I would guess the most important consideration for him is to show the audience that he is working really hard. Gyllenhaal wants us to know he is a serious thespian who is in serious cinema, and anything that would make him appear otherwise need not apply. His few unserious movies still have more serious undertones to them; Gyllenhaal’s lone romcom was also a movie about early onset Alzheimer’s. His swing at a big budget bonanza in the summer of 2010 was a true failure, and he has not returned to that well. (It should be noted that Leo took the same swing in the same summer, to results that were absolutely not the same.) Gyllenhaal appears to be maintaining this tinge of seriousness in the near future; his current slate of films don’t seem to include anything that will make him look lazy. His action roles even have a layer of prestige to them, and everything else seems to be teetering on the edge of overseriousness.

Par example: next year, Jake Gyllenhaal will be playing a Boston Marathon bombing survivor who lost his legs in the bombing and must begin to learn his new life without them. Now, from a real-world perspective, this is obviously a tragic story about somebody who has obviously overcome more difficult trauma than I obviously ever have. And I obviously shouldn’t prejudge a movie in post-production, because I obviously haven’t seen the movie in question. But man, does this ever look like some award-baity shit; it seems exactly like a role a pre-Revenant Leo would have fought for. This is where Jake Gyllenhaal is now, adding layers of effort until somebody finally notices he isn’t Hollywood’s youngest kid who has to make his plate last.

I had such fucking hopes for you, Jake.

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Public perception is a terribly influential thing, both to those who listen to it and those who claim to not. By having enough people listen to the Leo narrative, we all collectively believed he wasn’t a mostly terrible actor, while the few dissenting voices forced themselves to hyperbolically describe Leo’s performances as “mostly terrible.” The contrarian then overhypes the performances of somebody like Gyllenhaal, if only to be able to one day prop them up as “somebody you fuckers should have been listening to me about” the day they become properly recognized. (Had Gyllenhaal won Best Actor for Nightcrawler, or even been nominated, I would have sent a lot of emails with a tone that could only be described as “excessively self-congratulatory.”)

It is impossible to remove yourself from this perceived prison of perception; Gyllenhaal must remain serious so that nobody ever sees him be goofy, just like Leo did before him. They need to be able to never break character in our minds, so that we never get anything that interferes with how we see them in their next serious role. If an Academy voter has flashbacks to Bubble Boy while watching Gyllenhaal as a legless Boston marathon survivor, that voter is unlikely to give Gyllenhaal the vote he seems to want so badly.

I am, of course, guilty of a similar façade creation myself. I am guilty of wanting to be seen as too cool to authentically enjoy Leonardo DiCaprio’s performances. Regardless of whether or not I actually know this every time I say “Oh brother” when I see him over-emote in Shutter Island, it is something that lies beneath the experience. It can’t be avoided, even when it remains a subconscious choice. I want to think about movies in an uncommon way, ipso facto I cannot like the work of Hollywood’s most notable superstar. That would make me the Bubble Boy.

jake5

I suppose the unasked question that keeps bouncing around in your head is as follows: why does this matter? Why do I care if these accomplished dramatic actors continue accomplishing dramatic things? Why should one, namely me, expect a stranger, namely Mr. Gyllenhaal, to do what I want him to do? What is it that I want out of him anyway? Do I want him to play the titular character in a shot for shot remake of Kangaroo Jack or something?

These questions are unanswerable – although the answer to that last one is a definitive “no” – or at least unanswerable in a way that could ever be truly satisfying. Even if I were to sit in a room with Gyllenhaal with permission to ask any question I wanted, I doubt I would be able to find the answer I truly desire. I am bouncing around from feeling to feeling, from celebrity to celebrity. I’m assuming that I can understand an impossible world merely because I frequently buy a ticket to stare at one of that world’s exports. I am sitting, thinking, hoping, but never am I going to get what I claim to want. That would involve more foresight than I have the capability to have, more empathy than exists within these dusty bones.

There is no objectivity in the purely subjective world of film. I spell out my opinions to all who will listen, but there is no definitive, correct one to hold. There are the ones most people hold, and then there are the ones a slightly smaller number of people hold. The Leo theory is in the former category, the Gyllenhaal one the latter. I might be right about both, or I could be wrong about them. All the cards are forever in play. I am aware of this, and perpetually cognizant of it.

Perhaps Jake Gyllenhaal is merely tall. (Well, he is, but not as tall as you would expect.) It’s entirely possible that he gave a lackluster performance in Nightcrawler. (He didn’t, and I imagine it will remain his crowning achievement for the remainder of his career.) We’re all reframing the narrative through our own lens, hoping to find somebody willing to believe the same one. (This is the only objective truth that exists.)

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