A lot of buzz surrounding the recent release of the Antoine Fuqua boxing drama Southpaw has been about the physical transformation of its star, Jake Gyllenhaal. To take on the role of light heavyweight boxing champion Billy Hope, Gyllenhaal trained relentlessly to make not only his appearance but also his in-ring style look believable. This all comes less than a year after he turned in another dramatic performance with a stark appearance as the gaunt, hollow eyed Louis Bloom in 2014's Nightcrawler. But Gyllenhaal is not allowing himself to be overshadowed by these physical transformations. Few actors have been more reliable than he over the past 5 years. But it didn't always seem that way.
After being in a few smaller films, Gyllenhaal first hit the scene big in 2001 with a pair of very different films. First came his starring role in the widely panned film, Bubble Boy, in which he played the titular boy in the bubble. It was everything you could imagine from a slapstick comedy about a boy living in a bubble. It was easily one of the year's worst films, and his performance was uninspiring. But it would be his second film of 2001 that would offer glimmers of what might be.
In Donnie Darko, Gyllenhaal found a role where he could play shades of grey, a feature that he has honed in recent years. Playing the troubled young man who has terrifying and confusing visions, including a rabbit named Frank that only he can see, Gyllenhaal dug into an underlying darkness and learned to play the quiet moments. Darko became a cult hit and suddenly that kid in the bubble was looked at as someone who may have more to offer.
The next few years would see him in throwaway rom-coms and below average films as it seemed he may not be able to recapture the success that he had teased. But then a career altering opportunity came his way that truly put his name at the forefront of young Hollywood actors.
Ang Lee's 2005 film Brokeback Mountain drew massive attention as it pushed boundaries and forced discussions about an uncomfortable subject matter for some at the time. The film about two cowboys and their friendship turned forbidden love affair garnered praise throughout Hollywood for both its direction and its stellar young cast. Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger starred as the rough and tumble men who couldn't be open about their feelings, yet couldn't deny them despite their best efforts. The film earned Ang Lee the Academy Award for Best Director and got Gyllenhaal his first Oscar nomination, for Best Supporting Actor, losing out to Morgan Freeman in Million Dollar Baby. He was joined in Oscar nominations by fellow cast members Ledger & Michelle Williams in the acting categories, as well as the film getting nominated for Best Picture. It seemed as though the controversy of the film only helped to draw attention to several brilliant acting performances and the two male leads were headed for stardom.
He followed that with some ups (Zodiac) and some downs (Rendition/Prince of Persia). But in 2011 he starred in a very different film, Source Code. In it he played a soldier who is part of a government program that sends him back in time through another person's body to try and stop tragedy from striking. In what could have been a forgettable sci-fi thriller, Gyllenhaal tapped back into that genuineness that drew him so much praise years before. Thus began a string of increasingly more challenging and intriguing roles.
2012 saw Gyllenhaal playing LAPD officer Brian Taylor in David Ayer's gritty End Of Watch. The partnership between Taylor and his partner played by Michael Pena felt real and not contrived. The use of various cameras that Gyllenhaal's Taylor was using helped lend a voyeuristic feel to what could have turned into an episode of COPS, but drew the viewer into their lives all the more. 2013's Prisoners, in which he starred as a detective trying to help Hugh Jackman's character find his missing child, brought out a dark side to Gyllenhaal. His Detective Loki is conflicted between his duty and the oath he takes, and wanting to do whatever it takes to find the girls as the clock ticks down. The back and forth between he and Jackman makes for an intense crime thriller.
Then, 2014's Nightcrawler came out. Gyllenhaal starred as Louis Bloom, a manic sociopath who discovers a life photographing crime scenes around L.A. and gets a taste for success seeing his footage of human wreckage on the nightly news. It was in this role that everything seemed to come together. A drastic weight loss helped add to the aura of a feral man out on the streets always hustling for his next score. Gyllenhaal's performance was stunning as he played the quiet moments to perfection, using his now sunken eyes to convey a lifetime of emotion. His manic speech pattern and permanent fake smile only added to the uneasiness the audience feels with Mr Bloom. Nothing seems safe when he is on screen, in a movie that never paints anyone as the "good guy". This is truly a performance worth viewing.
So as we get to Southpaw, it should come as no surprise that Jake Gyllenhaal is able to find nuances in the crooks and crannies of what seems like a cliched character. He's able to find more than what is on the page for him, and delivers another stellar role as the flawed man who gains and loses the world and must fight, literally and figuratively, to gain what's most important back to him. It's a long way from being a boy rolling down a hill in a bubble.