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Profile: Jake Gyllenhaal

Jake Gyllenhaal is a most versatile actor, famous for portraying dark characters with incredible finesse. This is a profile of his work and career so far.

Profile: Jake Gyllenhaal

From blockbuster hits and quirky indies, Jake Gyllenhaal’s career has never taken a singular route. He’s an actor of impressive range, just as comfortable playing brooding, unstable figures like Lou Bloom in Nightcrawleras he is stepping into the shoes of heroic types like his role in his latest film, Life. 

The versatile actor was destined for a career in film, having been exposed to filmmaking at a young age, due to his family’s ties in the industry. Descended from Swedish nobles, he is the son of director Stephen Gyllenhaal, and producer and screenwriter, Naomi Foner. Actress Maggie Gyllenhaal is his older sister.

In his childhood years, his path to Hollywood was already set as he made his acting debut in City Slickers, playing Billy Crystal’s son. Jake Gyllenhaal’s other early roles include his part in A Dangerous Woman, appearing alongside his sister and the film was directed by their father. After Gyllenhaal dropped out of Columbia University to concentrate on acting, this helped him to go on and land his first lead role in October Sky.

With many quality films and memorable performances under his belt, Gyllenhaal shows no signs of slowing down. Let’s explore his acting journey in more detail with a swift look through his best work. Read on, and be sure to hunt down his best films for a Jake Gyllenhaal marathon.

Donnie Darko (2001)

Profile: Jake Gyllenhaal

Donnie Darko (2001) – source: New Market Films

Donnie Darko, a story of crashing jets and a giant bunny suits. Jake Gyllenhaal delivers one his best performances in this complex and twisted film. It was overlooked when it came out at the start of the millennia, particularly by US audiences, but it has since become a cult classic. Here the actor plays Donnie, a troubled high-school student, who communicates with a man in a large rabbit suit that only he can see. The reason for this is something much larger. Let’s just say the universe has plans for Donnie.

Driven by its own strange mythology, the film’s narrative forces the viewer to try and crack the mystery. It’s a remarkable film that is as much about death and time travel as it is about the transition to adulthood. The coming-of-age experience that the film captures spoke to Gyllenhaal on a personal level, as he said: “This is what my adolescence felt like.” Donnie Darko is a vital part of Gyllenhaal’s filmography, providing an early example of the type of films he likes to make. Even though it doesn’t depict his entire worldview, he said “There are a lot of things in there that I believe about the world.”

Filmed over the course of 28 days,  Donnie Darko is a psychological projection, an expression of the divine and a tale of growth, identity and destiny. It’s bleak, yet at the time a celebration of the universe. Donnie Darko is a staple in Jake Gyllenhaal’s career.

Zodiac (2007)

Profile: Jake Gyllenhaal

Zodiac (2007) – source: Warner Bros. Pictures

This is one of David Fincher’s lesser known films, yet it’s still highly acclaimed. It focuses on a San Francisco cartoonist, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, who becomes obsessed with an infamous serial killer, and is determined to solve the mystery. He gets involved in the investigation concerning the killer, becoming a sort of DIY detective. The film chronicles the Zodiac killer who claimed many lives in the San Francisco bay area. Zodiac is a great watch, featuring a fine performance from Gyllenhaal.

A tale of obsession, Zodiac grips you on all fronts, bolstered by the gripping performance of Gyllenhaal. Zodiac showed that he is at his best in darker roles, instead of playing up the “pretty-boy” appeal. This film marks an important stage in his career, as it spawned the edgy Gyllenhaal we all know today. Besides his roles in Love & Other Drugs and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and Accidental Love, all his films post-Zodiac have been dramatic, involving darkness and intensity.

Source Code (2011)

Profile: Jake Gyllenhaal

Source Code (2011) – source: Summit Entertainment

Ask yourself this: what would you do differently if you could re-live one important moment in your life? In Source Code, a sci-fi action thriller, Colton Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) crosses over into another man’s identity in a key moment of his life, to prevent a terrorist attack. This is utilised by a secret government computer programme, known as ‘Source Code’. Gyllenhaal really shows his versatility as an actor in this film and he shines in the leading role. Source Code is extremely entertaining and thought-provoking at the same time.

You’ll have a whole lot of questions on your mind after seeing Source Code. It’s driven by its own internal logic, opening up multiple interpretations and the film is confident in its execution. Gyllenhaal describes it as a movie that “opens up a number of stories that are fascinating. To me, there really is no ending to this movie – and that’s what’s so cool about it.”

As always, time-travel movies require repeated viewings and further inspection. Source Code was a commercial success and Gyllenhaal proved he has what it takes to play the lead in a big-budget Hollywood movie. Although he had already made big hits like The Day After Tomorrow and Jarhead, he fully takes centre stage in Source Code, which rides on both his performance and the concept.

Enemy (2013)

Profile: Jake Gyllenhaal

Enemy (2013) – source: A24 Films

Not one, but two Gyllenhaals! In this mind-boggling and ambiguous film, Jake Gyllenhaal plays both main characters. He anchors the film with a truly great performance. The basic story centres on college professor Adam Bell, who discovers he has a doppelganger, an actor he saw in a movie. He becomes obsessed with his double and starts interfering with the man’s affairs after he tracks him down. The film takes the viewer on an unsettling, dream-like journey, where no clear answers are given. A strange beast this film is, but it’s an outstanding, underrated piece of cinema.

By this stage in his career, there is a clear pattern to his choice of roles. Most of the characters he plays are complicated, exhibiting fractured identities and personalities. The ambiguous nature of Enemy resides in much of Jake Gyllenhaal‘s work. He explains: “It’s an exploration of the unconscious. Such an intense mood. I have this feeling that, ironically, the darker place you go, the more you can illuminate.” Not only does he summarise his feelings toward Enemy, but in many ways, he encapsulates his approach to movies. Evidently, he clearly has a need to go dark. And what better way to do this by starring in a film that forces the viewer to decipher every aspect of it.

Enemy is a film that warrants extensive discussion. It requires multiple viewing to even come close to understanding its crazy ideas and symbolism. This film won’t fare well with general audiences, but if you like movies that put across interesting concepts and stimulate food for thought, Enemy is an essential watch.

Nightcrawler (2014)

Profile: Jake Gyllenhaal

Nightcrawler (2014) – source: Open Road Films

Assuming the mantle of Lou Bloom, Jake Gyllenhaal seems pretty comfortable as a raging sociopath in Nightcrawler. Bloom is a freelance videographer, who travels all across LA, searching for the latest grisly crimes and murders to get on camera. Nightcrawler is a critical look at the media and it makes for a tense, thrilling film.

For his role in the movie, Gyllenhaal undertook a radical reinvention. He lost 30 pounds to transform into the ruthless Lou Bloom, a character with a burning hunger for success. Much like Donnie Darko and Enemy, it feels like you’re watching a nightmare transpire in Nightcrawler. A nightmarish landscape where Lou Bloom doesn’t think to question the nature of his work and no one else does either. The scary thing is, I can imagine someone like Lou is out there in the real world, wide-eyed and stalking the streets, desperately looking for the latest crime scene.

As shown in NightcrawlerGyllenhaal commits so strongly to his roles. He drives deep into characters and soon after shooting Nightcrawler, he bulked up massively for his part in SouthpawUltimately, Nightcrawler takes on themes that are central to Gyllenhaal’s work, such as culture and nightmares, which the film explores with a darkly comic undertone.

Nocturnal Animals (2016)

Profile: Jake Gyllenhaal

Nocturnal Animals (2016) – source: Focus Features

Paired with Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal shines in Nocturnal Animals. There’s much to admire about this film, particularly the visual style and the way the story is told. A wealthy art gallery owner, played by Adams, gets her hands on a manuscript written by her ex-husband, Edward (Gyllenhaal). The manuscript tells a dark tale about a man and his family, who stumble upon a nightmare situation on a road trip.

The film is a gripping story within a story, where Gyllenhaal once again takes on a dual role, portraying both Edward and the character Tony within the manuscript. The interconnected stories oppose and reflect one another, forcing the viewer to take a deeper look.

Gyllenhaal plays Tony exceptionally well – he’s a middle-class good guy, forced to defend his family against a bunch of psychopaths and his masculinity is put to the test. Jake Gyllenhaal plays the character of Edward as a confident and charming man, the antithesis of sinister, yet he will eventually go on to write the disturbed novel. Gyllenhaal’s performance is Nocturnal Animals’ greatest strength.


In the prime years of his career, who knows what Jake Gyllenhaal will do next. But for now, we can enjoy the quality films he has made so far. This list is of course not from an objective viewpoint. For someone else, films like Brokeback Mountain and Prisoners would have made the cut. But for those who have never seen a Gyllenhaal film, it’s time to get watching! He’s not a classic Hollywood star, but he’s one of the best actors working today.

What’s your thoughts on Jake Gyllenhaal’s career? Do you like him as an actor or not? Let us know in the comment section!

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Opinions expressed in our articles are those of the authors and not of the Film Inquiry magazine.

Liam is a big film fan who enjoys watching all kinds of films but loves thrillers, sci-fi, cult classics and horror. His other interests include music, sport and books.

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