Toronto: We Need to Get Back Onboard With Jake Gyllenhaal

Photo: Chuck Zlotnick/Open Road Films

Doesn't it seem like Jake Gyllenhaal should be bigger? Certainly, he's famous, but in a way that still suggests potential not yet met. He's able to get a movie green-lit, but not necessarily able to open it. He's got a crush-worthy mug and a famously enviable body, but fan campaigns don't spring up when he's snubbed for Sexiest Man Alive. And though Gyllenhaal earned a well-deserved Oscar nomination in 2005 for Brokeback Mountain, he hasn't been in contention since.

It would seem like I'm building a case for career mismanagement here, but actually, I'm arguing quite the opposite: Over the past few years, Gyllenhaal has been turning in consistently excellent, surprising work in a series of underseen films like End of Watch, Enemy, and Prisoners. The problem is not with Jake Gyllenhaal, then — the problem is with us, the public that demands new movie stars yet has a more-than-capable one flying under the radar. We've been sleeping on Jake Gyllenhaal for years now, and it's time we all woke up.

Perhaps his new film at the Toronto Film Festival, Nightcrawler, can sound the alarm. The title sounds somnambulant but this is a startlingly funny, naughty little movie that casts Gyllenhaal as fast-talking crime scene paparazzo Lou Bloom, a starring role that prompted the actor to lose 20 pounds, shave his body, and stay out of the sun until his skin took on the pallor of a mole rat. He's terrific in it, unnerving and insistent as he brushes blithely past cops and crying relatives in order to grab the perfect bloody shot to sell to the early-morning news. When he stumbles upon something particularly gruesome and scandalous, his mouth twists upward in a grinning, self-satisfied rictus, because his job is to pick up where the Grim Reaper left off, condemning these poor victims to an undignified afterlife.

Someone else in the movie calls Lou a "twerp." That's accurate! But a character doesn't have to be likable to be fascinating, and Gyllenhaal commits to Lou's dark corners with ferocity. Lou is remorseless in every way, never more so than in a breathtakingly ballsy scene where he takes a reluctant morning-news producer (Rene Russo) out for dinner, then aggressively lays out to this woman why she now has no choice but to sleep with him, blocking every one of her protestations with a stunning lack of empathy. She came to this sham date as a power player, she leaves it his semi-willing hostage. (That Russo is married to Nightcrawler's director, Dan Gilroy, makes the scene even crazier.)

A movie like Nightcrawler is likely way too weird for awards season, but I hope Gyllenhaal's wacked-out star turn gets the attention it deserves, because the actor has been worthy of a second look for too long now. Since 2010, the year his would-be blockbuster effort Prince of Persia bombed, Gyllenhaal has reinvented himself as a gutsy performer who eschews traditional studio product in favor of smaller, more distinctive stuff. He was great in a dual role in this year's bonkers Enemy; the year before, he was perhaps the strongest player in the stacked cast of Prisoners, or at least the one that understood the movie's tricky tone most innately. He was also terrific in End of Watch, and he anchored the underrated Source Code capably — add Nightcrawler to the list, and that's five good, modest movies in a row. I'm trying to think of another movie star who's coming off the back of five good movies, and they're few and far between. Sometimes, I think A-listers would settle for two good movies in a row.

So why isn't Gyllenhaal bigger? When I put that question to my co-workers, one complained that he's made too many recent movies about sociopaths and serial killers, while another colleague simply instant-messaged, "MAPLE LATTES," a code word employed by Taylor Swift to indicate that many of her most recent break-up anthems were aimed at Gyllenhaal. Either reason may explain why Gyllenhaal's female fan base has cooled, and it's not as though he'll be gunning for any "he's so hot" BuzzFeed posts with Nightcrawler, where he unnerves Rene Russo with creepy come-ons like, "I like the dark makeup under your eyes. I like the way you smell."

It's possible, too, that Gyllenhaal was never quite as big a movie star as he seemed. Excepting Prince of Persia, which limped its way to $90 million domestically, no movie Gyllenhaal has made since Brokeback Mountain has gotten even close to that film's $83 million gross, and the only film he's ever starred in that crossed the $100 million mark was 2004's The Day After Tomorrow. It's not exactly a résumé laden with blockbusters, but it's a career that's at least comparable to Ryan Gosling's low-boil C.V., and yet people seem so much thirstier for the Gos.

Their loss, I suppose. With his charisma and flexible talent for comedy, drama, and action, Gyllenhaal was Bradley Cooper-ing before we really even had Bradley Cooper. He doesn't show up on Marvel superhero wish lists, but maybe that's by design: Unlike most of the other men in his peer group, he's never made a sequel to anything. And that Oscar nod for Brokeback Mountain back in 2005? He got it when he was 25, and no actor so young has been nominated since. Maybe we just don't know what to do with guys like Gyllenhaal anymore, unless we're suiting them up in spandex.

And maybe, though we always want the best and biggest things for talented actors, Gyllenhaal's got exactly the career he wants. Most actors consign themselves to microbudget indies and megabudget tentpoles; Gyllenhaal has somehow carved out the rare path in between. If Nightcrawler doesn't raise his profile much, his next project might do the trick, anyway: Gyllenhaal just signed on to a film called Demolition to be directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, the man who helped revive Matthew McConaughey's career with Dallas Buyers Club and is now poised to lend a long-overdue jolt to Reese Witherspoon in their Oscar-buzzed movie Wild. Even if Hollywood doesn't know what to do with Jake Gyllenhaal, it seems like Jake Gyllenhaal knows exactly what he's doing.