There’s a scene late in Life, the new space thriller starring Jake Gyllenhaal, in which the 36-year-old star comes face to face with an alien. The movie is set on the International Space Station, where a group of scientists is tasked with catching an automated spacecraft on its return from Mars and analyzing what’s inside — the seed of a bloodthirsty monster, as it turns out. Long story short — sorry to spoil it — by the end of the movie, most of the six-person crew is dead, having been devoured by this carnivorous space-octopus-thing. Gyllenhaal, on the other hand, is alive and looking at it face to face — only, the way the scene is shot, it initially seems like he’s looking at us, the audience. Appealing to us. It is a look that says, “Help, I’m about to be eaten by an alien.” It also says, “Help, I’m in this movie.” It’s possible that Gyllenhaal is getting a little too used to giving that look.
“There was a moment when I went, ‘I’m not what my work is,”’ Gyllenhaal told Entertainment Weekly in 2014. “Meaning, I’m not communicating who I am.” That moment (the story goes) came in 2010, when Gyllenhaal starred in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, his second genuine blockbuster after 2004’s The Day After Tomorrow and his next big movie to follow 2005’s accidental hit Brokeback Mountain. Megastardom didn’t interest him at the time, though being seen out and about with Taylor Swift in the fall of 2010 certainly seemed like a public commitment to the idea. It was his lack of interest in outright stardom, plus his parents’ divorce in 2009, that made him reconsider the direction of his career in the 2010s. “When anybody does something that honest,” he told EW of his parents splitting, “it inspires you. I tried to emulate it in my work and in my life, too.”
Some years later, we still seem to be in Gyllenhaal’s “honest” phase, which initially saw him shift back to the dark, offbeat indie and indie-adjacent movies of the sort that jump-started his career. These are films like Prisoners, Nightcrawler, and Nocturnal Animals, in which he played, respectively, a brooding weirdo cop, a brooding weirdo ambulance chaser, and a brooding weirdo author formerly married to Amy Adams. This isn’t an accident: it’s a lane. There are different shades of dark cloud hanging over each of these films, but they all draw similarly on Gyllenhaal’s hot-emo charm — and they define the career arc he’s been on for almost a decade.
That’s more than can be said for the blockbusters he’s been in lately — movies we thought, or hoped, Gyllenhaal had left behind. Two years ago there was (the watchable but not great) Everest; now, there’s (the not nearly as watchable) Life. There’s no reason to beat up on actors for their occasional neither-here-nor-there, “one for you” Hollywood movies. Great actors star in bad movies all the time, and for various reasons; we’ll get over it. The singular disappointment of Life, however, is that it doesn’t know what to do with its star. There’s a sad, sunken quality to Gyllenhaal that’s sometimes used to be brooding, other times to be spontaneously erratic, and yet other times it’s used to dredge up mystery that finely toes the line of outright creepiness. Life taps into none of that, but like all of Gyllenhaal’s movies, it knows that side exists. If Gyllenhaal is still experimenting, Life is a rare lesson in his limits.
You can boil Gyllenhaal’s role in Life down to two things: a sad monologue about preferring to live in outer space, and a series of confused, stunned reaction shots as other people are getting eaten. Why does he prefer space? “I like the hum up here, and the air,” Gyllenhaal’s character, Dr. David Jordan, explains. This being a Gyllenhaal role, he has other, darker reasons. He was once a serviceman deployed to Syria who, as the war cliché goes, “saw things.” “I can’t stand what we do to each other down there.”
It’s boring, the kind of role that makes you wonder if staying clear of big, perfunctory Hollywood fare was, for Gyllenhaal, a wise choice. He’s no good as a blockbuster lead: he’s too distinctly strange to be a consensus hero, and playing one counterintuitively cuts down on the qualities that presumably earned him the role. But he looks the part, and his better roles, whether as an apocryphal sadboy in Donnie Darko or an obsessive cartoonist in Zodiac, have exploited that. The running joke in Gyllenhaal’s early films was for a character to call out his seeming innocence: Meryl Streep in Rendition: “Jesus, he looks 12 years old”; or a San Francisco Chronicle editor in Zodiac saying, “He’s a Boy Scout!” Directors can’t help but want to corrupt that, it seems. In Rendition, Gyllenhaal got a front seat to torture, and Zodiac — one of his best roles — made him a brainy obsessive hell-bent on finding the Zodiac killer, to his personal and professional detriment.
“One of the interesting things about these roles that Jake has taken,” Tom Ortenberg, CEO of Open Road Films, which backed End of Watch, told Variety, “is that they are darker, but still commercial.” Gyllenhaal’s face is what’s commercial. OK, and his abs — but mostly, his appeal is in the ironic gap between the two halves of his persona. There’s the boyish hottie at the surface and there’s the older, tortured soul simmering beneath. “You could say he’s too sensitive for this industry,” Robert Downey Jr. told GQ in 2007, when Gyllenhaal, fresh off of filming Zodiac, was just 26. “That’s not even the right word. He’s clear. But he’s also a total badass. He and Steve McQueen would have gotten along amazingly. Guys who will do anything, anywhere. A lot of people think actors are pussies. That isn’t the case. He’s nice, all right, but he’s also wet, dark, and wild.”
Is it possible he’s as strange offscreen as on? “I watched him vomit in the gym and almost pass out,” says director Antoine Fuqua (Southpaw). ”I watched him take gut shots to the ribs, get dropped. You can’t ask for more than what he did. And it’s not because of some Hollywood reason. Jake gives you his heart.” Recently, giving heart has entailed being extra. Gyllenhaal is now known for his deep physical commitment to his roles — losing and gaining weight, exposing himself to harsh mental and physical conditions, and so on. “I learned that preparation was my savior,” he told EW. ”Freedom was on the other side of discipline.”
It was his idea to make the ambulance-chasing crime videographer Lou, in Nightcrawler, creepily gaunt. “I would try to eat as few calories as possible,” he has said. “I knew if I was hungry that I was in the right spot. Physically, it showed itself, but chemically and mentally, I think it was even a more fascinating journey. It became a struggle for me.” He dropped to 150 pounds, from 180, for the role. He got that weight back for the boxing movie Southpaw, for which he gained 25 pounds of muscle, but I would imagine he vomited most of that weight back up after simulating altitude sickness in a hypobaric chamber for Everest. There’s also the story about the time he spontaneously punched a mirror during the Nightcrawler shoot and had to be sent to the hospital. He was back on set eight hours later. “I’m not saying it’s a positive thing to get hurt and have to get stitches in your hand,” he told Variety. “But to me, the scar is about a certain type of commitment.”
It’s the kind of thing I love and hate to hear: the conflation of actorly effort with genuine performance. However earnest, and honest, it makes most actors sound a little crazy. In Gyllenhaal’s case, it feels like an insight into how his mind works. “I learn a skill for what you don’t see onscreen,” Gyllenhaal has said. “A line is a line is a line. But a line is something else when underneath it, there’s the experience of the line.”
That’s an idea worth thinking about. It’s not that I love him in all of his humbler indie movies — lately, the brooding cop and ex-husband routine has begun to feel a little too easy, the kind of lazy typecasting that suits the actor’s persona too well for you to complain but ultimately makes so little of the actor’s talent that his genius gets obscured. But what makes those roles distinct is that they pose a challenge. They give Gyllenhaal a chance to experiment with, as he calls it, “the experience of the line”: they give him a chance to give his characters that trademark moody essence, which speaks volumes louder than silly backstories. Some stars, like Tom Cruise, can pull that off — make stock characters sing with more warmth and identity than the movies deserve. Life confirms, if nothing else, that Gyllenhaal’s not that kind of star.