“Demolition” is a bold film that succeeds thanks to the committed performance by Gyllenhaal. He stars as perpetually nervous investment banker Davis Mitchell, whose wife Julia (Heather Lind) is killed in a sudden car accident. Davis has a strained relationship with Julia’s father Phil (Chris Cooper), who is also his boss. Phil bullies Davis on a daily basis, taking out his anger and his grief on his son-in-law. Not sure how to cope, Davis strikes up an unusual romance with a friendly customer service representative, Karen (Naomi Watts).
“Jarhead” is an unusual war film, as it is both satirical and realistic. The film adapts the biographical account of Lance Corporal Anthony Swofford’s tenure in the Gulf War, with Gyllenhaal starring as the lead character and narrator. Gyllenhaal makes the voiceover feel personal, as Swofford’s perspective on his military service and the conflict itself change over time. Swofford’s father is a Vietnam veteran and he wants to honor his family legacy, but he is instantly uncomfortable with the laid-back attitude of his corporal, Alan Troy (Peter Sarsgaard).
In “Source Code,” Gyllenhaal brought emotional earnestness to a complex science fiction premise. The film’s high concept is only successful if its characters are as compelling as its twists, and Gyllenhaal serves as a great gateway through which the audience can explore this time-travel story. “Source Code” opens with U.S. Captain Colter Stevens (Gyllenhaal) waking up on a train with only fleeting memories of surviving a mission to Afghanistan. Stevens is shocked to learn that he’s in another man’s body — that of school teacher Sean Fentress. Fentress’ girlfriend Christina (Michelle Monaghan) can’t see the difference, and talks to Steven about a life he didn’t lead.
Stevens realizes that he’s in a virtual reality simulator designed to show what happened to a train in the minutes before a bomb blows it up. Stevens’ body was lost, but his consciousness remains; in a twist on the “Groundhog Day” formula, Stevens experiences the events on a loop while he tries to piece together clues and find the culprit.
Gyllenhaal shows how Stevens is conflicted about his various responsibilities. He doesn’t want to upset Christina by changing Sean’s personality, yet he also wants to find the bomber so the police can stop future crimes. Stevens also has things from his own life he wants to address — in an emotional phone call to his father, Stevens poses as a fellow soldier, ultimately reconciling with his estranged parent.
With “Nightcrawler,” Gyllenhaal created one of his most memorable characters: idiosyncratic ambulance chaser Lou Bloom. Bloom is both darkly funny and absolutely terrifying. Dan Gilroy’s directorial debut relies on having an adaptable star who can capture Bloom’s dynamic personality, and Gyllenhaal delivered, turning in one of his bravest performances.
Bloom is a mischievous Los Angeles-based thief who is convinced that he can talk himself out of any situation. He has developed a talent for digging through seedy environments, and is fascinated with crime. Although Lou tries to put on a warm front, Lou doesn’t feel normal emotions, and finds that stringing together news footage of crimes in action may be his ideal career. Even if he doesn’t feel empathy, Lou is intensely competitive and aims to best local stringer Joe Loder (Bill Paxton) by getting a recurring gig working for a television news station. Lou only imagines that television audiences have the same aptitude for brutality that he does.
Gyllenhaal only occasionally shows the extent of Lou’s rage, teasing the extremes he will go to find depraved situations. When Lou recruits his assistant Rick (Riz Ahmed), he grows scarier as it becomes clear that Rick’s life is in danger. Gyllenhaal and Ahmed have an awkward dynamic that begins with humor, yet ends in gripping tragedy.
Gyllenhaal’s lone Oscar win was for a deserving role. “Brokeback Mountain” bravely shatters stereotypes surrounding western masculinity with a touching love story featuring two cowboys. While the film never shies away from the hardships these men face as they endure bigotry and struggle to keep their romance secret, director Ang Lee seems most interested in the beauty of their love.
“Brokeback Mountain” wouldn’t have had the same impact if it wasn’t for the two towering performances at its center. Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Gyllenhaal) are assigned to work for an entire summer on a sheepherding task, and Gyllenhaal and Ledger show how the intimate nature of the job blossoms into attraction. Twist is the first to express his feelings, and Gyllenhaal’s openness makes Ennis feel conflicted — he knows that their romance can’t leave the isolated mountain.
Even when they don’t share the screen together, Gyllenhaal and Ledger play up the painstaking trauma of the men’s separation. Ennis only gradually learns about Jack’s difficult home life and the discrimination he faces from his parents, making Gyllenhaal’s pursuit of love even braver. Both men are shackled by the restrictive gender stereotypes they’re expected to abide by, but Gyllenhaal still shows Twist’s softer, charismatic side.
Richard Kelly’s landmark science fiction thriller “Donnie Darko” is one of the most impressive directorial debuts of all time. Kelly weaves an intricate time travel narrative through the eyes of a lonely teenager who is visited by a masked figure known only as “Frank.” The film requires serious attention from audiences, but its satire of suburban communities and its relatable central character make “Donnie Darko” totally unique.
Gyllenhaal’s performance is essential to the film’s success, and a major reason why it persists as a favorite. The film needs an engaging character to guide viewers as they unravel the mystery at the film’s core. With his dismissive attitude, Donnie could’ve been unlikable, but Gyllenhaal captures his isolation in a way that makes him sympathetic, not annoying. As the suspense builds, Gyllenhaal does an excellent job portraying Donnie’s increasing paranoia.
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