In 2001, Jake Gyllenhaal became Donnie Darko—a role that would cement his place in the cultural landscape as a brooding, disaffected yet approachable smokeshow with icy-blue pools where his eyes should be. Gyllenhaal, the son of a director and a screenwriter, would enter the realm of talked-about and well-regarded male actors, and take increasingly serious roles from there. But that is to his detriment—as his boyish charm has now been decimated by his onscreen interpretations of men grappling with what it means to be a man. In my youth, his status as fresh-faced dreamboat thrilled me and now, the mismatch between what I see as his physical attractiveness and literally everything else about him eats away at me day and night.
Gyllenhaal had a good thing going between the success of Donnie Darko, which became a cult classic despite (or BECAUSE OF) the fact it makes less sense the more you think about it, and his role in The Day After Tomorrow, the last good movie he made. Since then, Gyllenhaal has largely opted to play deeply unsettled men in fake-serious dramas. He plays a Marine sniper in Jarhead, a cartoonist-cum-amateur detective in Zodiac, a similarly obsessive amateur journalist in Nightcrawler, and a boxer in Southpaw. He’s Amy Adams’s ex-husband in Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals, who sends her a manuscript of a very violent novel he’s writing and asks to reconnect. Sometimes he does a rom-com. He might save Anne Hathaway from a life of illness and unhappiness in Love & Other Drugs; he could similarly help Gwyneth Paltrow after her mentally unstable father dies in Proof. But these stories always had a dark edge.
His latest movie, Netflix’s Velvet Buzzsaw, seems to fit this bill. Out this Friday, Gyllenhaal plays an art critic whose greed backfires when he buys several paintings that possess some kind of supernatural power, and can break out into the third dimension to strangle onlookers. “Something truly goddamn strange is going on!” Gyllenhaal says at one point. The trailer opens with him squinting at the camera as if examining a piece of art. “Critique is so limiting and emotionally draining,” he says. But the same thing can be said for his whole shtick.
What a lot of Gyllenhaal’s roles have in common is a kind of superior intelligence. He plays a nerd, albeit one that looks like he was designed in a lab for extremely good-looking people; he’s got enough dark, chestnut-y hair to run your fingers through, a kind smile and an honest laugh, and I already went over his eyes. But that nerdiness is meant to signal to the characters within the movie and viewers alike, that he’s not like other guys.
The roles he’s chosen since his best work—The Day After Tomorrow—show that this kind of pretentiousness can go too far. The central appeal of Gyllenhaal is that he could be someone you grow up next door to, meet at your friend’s book reading, or share a vacation in a snow-dusted cabin. At this point in his career, he’s chosen to squander his gifts and dedicate himself to playing men who can see—and who can show you—something no one else can. It’s not the premise that’s unappealing; it’s the execution. He commits further to hamming it up and turning me off each time.
Revisiting The Day After Tomorrow is to watch a younger Gyllenhaal in his prime. Watching a superstorm brew over the northern hemisphere while Dennis Quaid races against the clock to both appeal to the president of the United States to take action and travel to midtown Manhattan to save his son (Gyllenhaal) who has taken shelter in the New York Public Library’s main branch reminded me that yes, Gyllenhaal was really cute back then, as a rogue smartypants with kind eyes. The Day After Tomorrow a very good, scary movie with a few dumb moments, and it held a very special place in my heart when I was 12. When Gyllenhaal kisses Emmy Rossum by a fireplace as they hunker down in the library it was like seeing my destiny; I thought we’d all get a moment like that, where someone confesses their feelings for you in the middle of an earth-destroying blizzard. Nothing could be more romantic.
That, obviously, turned out to be a lie—but I realized a simple truth while watching. Maybe Gyllenhaal was a bad actor all along. Maybe it’s not the new roles, but the way his idea of acting boils down to just staring at the camera intently—a little too intently. Is he going for nonchalance? Can he not be bothered? Whatever it is, it takes me out of the movie. I won’t point out one specific moment here; just watch it. Watch any of his movies. It’s everywhere.
No one’s asking Gyllenhaal to be the most talented actor of his generation; he’s attractive, after all, so people will enjoy watching his face on screens big and small. He should have stuck to making movies like that: feel-good dumb ones, instead of try-hard bad ones.