The Curious Case of Jacob B. Gyllenhaal

4c1921f864b8416e4fef35e306e79f03For me when I read the script there was a lot about Los Angeles, particularly the topography of Los Angeles was fascinating, even in the screenplay. And the idea that at night these creatures come out, specifically, the creatures of the animal kingdom in Los Angeles are coyotes and other animals, but really, specifically, coyotes. And if you live in Los Angeles – and I happen to have grown up there – they’re all over the place, looking like they’re starving; looking like they’re hungry, and looking like they’re literally going to eat you when they stare you down. They’re fearless. They’re fearless creatures. There was something about the nature of this character that was very much like that, and somehow brought together this natural animal world, and then this metropolis of Los Angeles, in a way that I had never read before, and I don’t think had been done before. And it wasn’t like you were cutting away to footage of coyotes. You were literally watching the personification of a coyote. And that was fascinating to me. And that meant an exploration of myself physically and mentally that I had never really done before.”

So said Jake Gyllenhaal during a Q Interview promoting 2014’s ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­Nightcrawler. Gyllenhaal’s statement, which became a running meme throughout that circuit, maintains a tendency toward the earnest. The rub here stems not so much from the rabid stench of pretension as the fact that 30 lbs. of weight loss might not have been the way to go. Ultimately, Gyllenhaal’s approach served as a distraction, implying he views low-lying members of the media to be pariahs, metaphorically sucking the blood out of each city. Gyllenhaal’s character – Louis Bloom – aspired toward some mix of Rupert Pupkin and Travis Bickle. Only his execution fell far short; a sparse attempt that
missed the mark.

As a professional, Gyllenhaal’s goal is to evolve. But in doing so he risks losing the ongoing advocacy of an early base that admired him not only because he was pretty (he was), or because he reminded them of a boy scout (he did), but primarily because he could nail all of the nuances of a performance. Listening to a 33-year-old Jake Gyllenhaal prattle on about his “exploration” of a character begins to sound more like a regression. For Gyllenhaal is gambling upon the elasticity of persona. The further – and more frequently – he stretches, the more worn out that suit of fabric will become.

To wit: If one were to plot Gyllenhaal’s most recent career choices as chronological points on a graph – with the X axis representing his personal level of distortion and the Y axis representing an audience’s approximation of belief – the downward trend would make itself known. Almost every major film role (with the exception of Dastan from Prince of Persia) would score high – despite descending – on the Y axis, while sloping out along the X. That slope would indicate a correlation between Gyllenhaal’s “exploration” of each character and the dwindling appreciation of his niche. End of Watch, Prisoners, Enemy, Nightcrawler, Southpaw … these represent engaging concepts, despite Gyllenhaal’s inclusion continuing to feel increasingly bereft.

In the interest of parallel, consider Christian Bale. Bale, much like Gyllenhaal, started out as a child actor. Bale, much like Gyllenhaal, had always been a method guy. Bale, much like Gyllenhaal, was being courted for the role of Bruce Wayne in Christopher Nolan’s reboot of Batman. Bale – at 29 – had already pulled off Patrick Bateman; Gyllenhaal – at 22 – had already pulled off Donnie Darko. Bale was the initial choice of Christopher Nolan; Gyllenhaal was the initial choice of David Goyer. Bale would eventually win out, and this would prove to be a critical point.

There were – and are – tiny cracks when it comes to Gyllenhaal. In 2005, the actor hinted at his dissatisfaction over Brokeback Mountain Director Ang Lee’s tendency to disassociate once principal filming began. Fourteen months later, Gyllenhaal was quoted in the New York Times as saying he was disgruntled with Zodiac Director David Fincher’s endless takes. This would seem to indicate a measure of pseudo-intellectualism that brilliant fillmmakers might seek to avoid. And yet for Gyllenhaal, that level of narcissism might prove inborn.

Gyllenhaal grew up a progeny of Hollywood. His mother was a screenwriter, his father, a director. Gyllenhaal’s godfather was – and is – a cinematographer. His godmother is Jamie Lee Curtis. Given the circumstances, it is reasonable to assume Gyllenhaal’s never had to scratch and claw to make his way or survive. And yet, he’s overcompensated by choosing roles that disavow not only his nepotism, but good looks. The fact that Gyllenhaal has eschewed a lot of Christian-Grey-type offers should mean something. And it does. But it doesn’t change the fact that Gyllenhaal’s most memorable forays (e.g., Holden Worther in The Good Girl, Robert Graysmith in Zodiac, etc.), retain some air of that blue-eyed nerd from October Sky. One way or another, Jacob Gyllenhaal will always have to battle for legitimacy. It is the price somebody pays for jumping ahead at the front door.

(Jake Gyllenhaal stars in Southpaw, arriving in theaters nationwide on July 24th.)