Something funny happened in Toronto a few weeks back. An extremely dour looking crime drama called Prisoners, burdened with a trailer that felt derivative of David Fincher thrillers like Seven or The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (but with even more rain!), began accumulating buzz like an avalanche of bees. Turns out the movie with the unremarkable premise—kidnapped kids! sad-angry parents!—was good. And now that it's opening in theaters, you have your chance to see just how excellent (and bleak, of course) it gets, when an almighty Jake Gyllenhaal, acting like a man possessed, goes looking for the kidnapper of two little girls.
In Prisoners, a movie replete with complicated, showy characters, Detective Loki—played by Gyllenhaal—is an indecipherable question mark. Solemn and, for the most part, non-emotive, he's harboring more than a few inner demons. It's obvious from the way he blinks incessantly, a nervous habit that could mean he's a former drug addict, or, at one point in time, suffered from some kind of psychosis. There's no question that he's a lonely guy. The first time we see Loki, he's eating alone inside an empty Chinese restaurant on Thanksgiving night, trying to scam extra fortune cookies out of the waitress.
The script, written by Aaron Guzikowski, doesn't provide any concrete background information about Loki. The rest of the bleak and engrossing film's tormented characters, on the other hand, are given more obvious layers, namely grieving father Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman), a blue-collar repairman whose young daughter and her neighborhood friend have been abducted. Loki's the acting detective on the case, and his no-fail record precedes him, even if Keller doesn't trust Loki's abilities and decides to take matters in his own dirty hands—e.g., kidnapping the lead suspect, the brain-damaged Alex Jones (Paul Dano), boarding him up inside an abandoned building's decrepit bathroom, and torturing him.
There are moments early into Prisoners where you're left frustrated, wishing that Loki would show some kind of emotion. After all, he's investigating the possible homicides of two girls who haven't even entered grade school yet. Yet Gyllenhaal doesn't let you hate Loki, or even scoff at his monotone approach to crime-solving. There's an underlying melancholy to the character visible in Gyllenhaal's eyes—he's on the verge of breaking down, it's only a question of when. And then the catalyst for self-implosion happens in one particularly brutal scene, and that's it. Loki snaps, and it's animalistic and sorrowful. He's hurting badly. Whether something's conjured up past memories or he's simply reacting in the moment doesn't matter. As Loki treats his desktop keyboard like a head-banging rocker would his guitar after an especially raucous performance, Gyllenhaal's tapping into something primal, something explosive. From that point on, he's the most compelling thing about Prisoners.
It's also the moment where the actor's past transgressions become obsolete. That time he foolishly reached for action hero stardom in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010)? Water under the bridge. That other time, nine years before that, when he almost squandered the good will he'd earned starring in Richard Kelly's unlikely midnight movie classic Donnie Darko (2001) by unwisely leading the idiotic Bubble Boy (2001)? Nothing more than an inconsequential blip on what's shaping up to be a superior A-list Hollywood career.
With Prisoners, a big-studio thriller that's darker, smarter, and riskier than anything coming out of Hollywood outside of David Fincher's serial killer oeuvre, Gyllenhaal has officially kick-started the prestige phase of his career. In the film, directed by French-Canadian buzz-earner Denis Villeneuve (he of the Oscar-nominated flick Incendies), Gyllenhaal is pitted against some rather steep best-actor-in-this competition. As the vengeful father, Jackman goes impressively against type to give his most eye-opening performance yet. Once again playing the meek punching bag, Dano owns his character's tragic helplessness. There's also the great Melissa Leo, bringing nuanced edge to what is, on the surface, a stock "the monster's warm-hearted nurturer" role. But Gyllenhaal out-performs them all, much to the film's advantage, since, although the commercials and marketing have posited Jackman's Keller as its lead, Prisoners really belongs to Loki. It's a dominant performance that will make it difficult for naysayers to write Gyllenhaal off as just another Hollywood pretty boy who, in their eyes, is a decent actor but not someone who'll attract them towards the box office.
Of course, Gyllenhaal's already an Academy Award nominee, so one could say that his prestige phase began back in 2005 with Brokeback Mountain, and they'd have a point. But, like Halle Berry and Cuba Gooding, Jr., Gyllenhaal wasn't ready to fully embrace good taste. He, or his persuasive handlers, figured his awards presence could help flip-flop between mindless popcorn fare and highbrow filmmaking. Hence, a starring turn in David Fincher's brilliant Zodiac (2007) led to the aforementioned Prince of Persia. In 2011, he tried to find the middle ground between the two extremes with Source Code, a thinking person's sci-fi/action flick that's good but ultimately forgettable. Looking back on Gyllenhaal's filmography since Brokeback Mountain, it's clear that he's been trying to figure things out, and, to his credit, he's done a fine enough job of it. He's also brought his A-game to everything he's done, from saving the hokey romance in Love & Other Drugs (2010) from insufferable dreariness alongside Anne Hathaway to elevating last year's uneven first-person POV cop drama End of Watch through a deft blend of tough-guy command and his endearing on-screen bromance with co-star Michael Peña.
This year, though, Gyllenhaal seems to have rediscovered himself, and a lot of the credit must go to Prisoners director Denis Villeneuve. Before they made this weekend's Hollywood-backed production together, Gyllenhaal and Villeneuve congregated in Toronto to independently make Enemy, a mind-fucker that just premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. While the festival's screenings of Prisoners garnered more notice before TIFF began, it was the lower-profile Enemy that had attendees debating and pondering the most by festival's end. Leaving my afternoon screening Enemy, I couldn't help but eavesdrop on other press and industry members speculating about the creepy, ambiguous ending and its overall strangeness. In it, Gyllenhaal plays two characters, though without changing his physical appearance whatsoever. He's Adam Bell, an introverted college professor, and Bell's mysterious doppelgänger, Anthony Claire, a struggling actor who, once he learns of Bell's inexplicable likenesses, begins a perverse and psychologically intricate dismantling of Bell's life.
I, for one, loved Enemy, but many others at TIFF loathed the film, seeing it as maddeningly obtuse genre hokum, decrying its superficial pleasures (Villeneuve coats the film with hazy visuals and a sound design that's undeniably unsettling) and attacking its lack of explanation or resolution. One thing that everyone seemed to agree upon, however, was that Gyllenhaal's a beast in Enemy. It's a difficult assignment for any actor, alternating from two personality extremes while making the audience forget that it's the same actor twice and, once the film descends into its moral abyss, revealing new layers to both characters without any expository help from Villeneuve or screenwriter Javier Gullón. Upstart distribution company A24 (Spring Breakers, The Bling Ring, The Spectacular Now) snatched Enemy up at TIFF, so, thankfully, it will get a much-deserved theatrical release soon enough. Audiences and critics will no doubt be divided, but anticipate heaps of praise aimed at Gyllenhaal. And if A24 handles the film right, Enemy could be this decade's Memento.
The other night Gyllenhaal received one of the film industry's coolest honors, an indisputable sign of thespian credibility: his very own edition of Inside the Actor's Studio. Sure, Teri Hatcher, Bon Jovi, and the cast of Family Guy have all once graced that same stage, but so have Robert De Niro, Robert Redford, Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, and damn near every other greatest-actor-of-all-time selection. It's the logical next step for Gyllenhaal on his way to prestige-phase esteem. As he gets ready to turn 33 in December, gone are the Prince of Persia cash-grabs—now, when he wants to flex his action muscles, he's doing it next to fellow Oscar-caliber actors, like Josh Brolin and John Hawkes in the currently in-production Everest, the "based on true events" film in which Gylllenhaal will play one of a mountain climber fighting for his life after a storm wipes out most of his fellow expedition team members.
Everest screams guy-cry. Here, Jake—take these tears. You've earned them.
Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
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