Is Jake Gyllenhaal’s Okja Performance Brilliant or Awful?

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Jake Gyllenhaal in Okja. Photo: Barry Wetcher / Netflix

Jake Gyllenhaal doesn’t quite deliver a career-best performance in the new Netflix movie Okja, but he certainly delivers a career-most performance. As Vulture’s Kyle Buchanan wrote after seeing the film at Cannes, it’s “a performance so flamboyant, you can see it from space.” Now that the rest of us have had the chance to experience Gyllenhaal’s Dr. Johnny Wilcox ourselves, it’s time to debate the question: Does Gyllenhaal’s out-there performance work?

Kevin Lincoln: Jordan! You and I were sitting next to each other when we saw Bong Joon-ho’s new movie Okja, but we left the theater very far apart. Despite being a fan of Bong’s, whose last film, Snowpiercer, I thought was just about the most original action movie I’d seen in recent memory, I didn’t much go for Okja, which I found to be tonally anarchic, thematically confused, and far too silly for my tastes. But more than that, despite being what you might call a Gyllenstan — I have unpacked the meaning of not one, not two, but three of his films for this very website — Jake Gyllenhaal’s, uh, eccentric performance left me unmoved, unamused, and generally kinda irritated. While there are things I admire about it, which we can get into, let’s start with your appreciation of Jake in Okja. Tell me: What am I missing?

Jordan Crucchiola: Hi, Kevin! First off, let me start by totally agreeing with you on one point. I was completely irritated by Jake Gyllenhaal in this movie. As the has-been TV zoologist Dr. Johnny Wilcox, I found his screeching voice and neurotic behavior to be physically repulsive. As soon as he showed up on the screen I wanted someone – anyone – to punch him until he died. But within the context of Okja, Gyllenhaal’s unnatural display managed to feel entirely organic to me. I couldn’t have imagined him playing the role any smaller, given the ham-fisted messaging and aesthetic of the movie. As jarring as Okja could get with its tone switching — which I also admit I enjoyed — the mania of Gyllenhaal’s performance felt at home amid action sequences that involved a hippo-pig crashing through a Korean subway station, and a vegan eco-activist in Paul Dano who only broke his hippie Zen to kick the ever-loving shit out of one of his friends. Bong Joon-ho’s primary directive seems to have been making audiences truly feel what his characters were experiencing — through all their joys and horrors — and no performance made me feel more reflexively than Gyllenhaal’s. Does that jibe with you, or do you think I’m just mistaking acting for Acting?

KL: I think that’s a very good point — and also a very good ham pun — and essentially the question at the heart of the movie, from which you can’t divorce Gyllenhaal’s performance: What’s really going on here? Is this a high-pitched, mostly comedic caper with a dressing of animal-rights activism, or is it a serious movie about the abuses of capitalism and industrial farming, told through Bong’s wacky and brutal villain? (For an example of this vision at its most perfectly realized, see Alison Pill pulling a submachine gun out a basketful of eggs in Snowpiercer.) I thought Okja wanted to be the latter, but its execution ended up closer to the former, and that’s where I lost the thread, both with the film and with Gyllenhaal’s turn as the venerable Dr. Johnny.

For those who haven’t seen the movie yet, it’s worth briefly describing Gyllenhaal’s performance. Squealing like an alcoholic teakettle, wearing a child’s shorts and a car salesman’s mustache, Gyllenhaal lurks in the back of shots, screams and cries, and generally seems on the verge of falling over. It’s certainly a committed performance, but if the commitment is to anything other than hyperbole, I’m not entirely sure what it is. By all accounts, it was Bong who directed Gyllenhaal to these great lengths, which makes sense — something like this doesn’t happen by accident. But it’s also emblematic of what I think is Okja’s misjudged quality. The scariest thing about industrial farming and capitalistic excess in America is that it tends to be carried out by the blandest of dudes in navy suits, people who deliberately sand off their weird edges, with folksy farmers and champion athletes providing the palatable face. It’s interesting that Gyllenhaal and his co-star Tilda Swinton play the kind of villains you’d find in South Korean cinema; by making a fundamentally South Korean movie that’s partly set in the United States and stars two white actors, I think Bong undertook an interesting cultural experiment, but failed to bridge the real human differences that characterize these two societies. Instead, we end up with a pair of bad guys so cartoonish and bizarre that they mostly seem like aliens, beamed in from no place on this planet. In fact, had they turned out to be literal aliens, I think I might’ve liked the movie better — it would’ve explained a lot. Did Bong’s fusion work better for you than it did me?

JC: Personally, I’m thrilled to agree with so many of your points, while considering them assets rather than liabilities: The outsize performances of Swinton and Gyllenhaal actually made the tonal shifts work better for me. When we meet Dr. Johnny he is a wheezing, shouting narcissist, but as the movie gets darker, so too does his character, sinking to a level of cruelty that’s genuinely terrifying. And that’s exactly why I think this movie succeeded as a truly bicultural film, despite its flaws.

Okja feels like the future to me. When I think of the worlds in Blade Runner or District 9 or The Expanse, where different cultures have blended into hybrid societies with mixed languages, I imagine people sitting at the counters of noodle bars and watching a movie like Okja play on a paper-thin panel screen.

Whether you’re watching Okja in South Korea or here in the States, you’ll be able to understand Gyllenhaal’s character. As the movie business starts to make its decisions on a global scale, it seems to me that there are two paths forward for international cinema. The first is hollow, easily translatable spectacle like The Mummy, where literally none of the words matter. The other is something bolder and crazier — something like Okja. Gyllenhaal’s performance would fit right into Park Chan-wook’s Lady Vengeance or I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK. I’d love to see more American actors playing characters with a more typically Korean gusto. But I also know I like some weird things. Do you think most viewers will receive the movie the way you did? Is the way Netflix is selling Okja alienating or inviting an audience?

KL: Honestly, I hope you’re right — if this is the future of international cinema, I’ll certainly take it over The Mummy, and I do admire Bong’s ambitions, if not fully his execution. (This is the rare film that I don’t particularly like, but still makes me even more eager to see the filmmaker’s next work.) To answer your question, I’m exceptionally curious to see how Okja’s release plays out. As we both know, Netflix has yet to release a movie that really commands the cultural hive mind in the way that its TV has, but I remember that when Snowpiercer hit VOD, I talked to a hell of a lot of people, people who wouldn’t normally be hip to the latest work by a South Korean auteur, who were like, “Holy shit, did you see that wacko movie about the people on the train?” This did not happen nearly as often for me with The Handmaiden, Park Chan-wook’s wonderful film from last year. I think that fact speaks to (1) Bong’s interest in and capacity for working in a Western milieu; (2) Park’s hyperaggressive aesthetic and style, which is certainly more specific and alienating than Bong’s (though Park’s Oldboy is probably the best-known movie either of them have made); and (3) the landscape-leveling power of a platform like Netflix. While The Handmaiden is on Amazon, Amazon still isn’t Netflix in terms of its streaming power, and Netflix remains, in my mind, the most powerful platform for reaching an audience that isn’t a 4,000-theater-wide release.

Still, it isn’t so hard to imagine Okja’s own version of the Snowpiercer word-of-mouth: “Hey, did you see that wacko movie where Jake Gyllenhaal loses his mind?”

JC: You’re right: If Okja ever becomes a potential watercooler topic, it’ll likely be because of Gyllenhaal. I loved Ahn Seo-hyun, the young heroine. I loved Tilda Swinton as a megalomaniac with braces. I loved adorable Okja herself, but Gyllenhaal is the part that got stuck in my brain, and as far as next-day moments I want to talk about with people, I’ll just say that the brutal scene between Dr. Johnny, Okja, and his terrible tool is something I’ve been waiting to talk about with people after they’ve finally seen it. If that doesn’t end up as one of the top three most disturbing movie moments of the year, something will have gone terribly wrong in 2017.

Ultimately, Okja is not quite the movie it could be, but like you, it makes me very excited for what Bong chooses to do next. And Gyllenhaal’s go-for-it performance is something I’m thrilled Netflix put its money behind. If they keep letting filmmakers take big swings like this, eventually they’re going to land a home run.

Jake Gyllenhaal in Okja: Brilliant or Awful?