September 19, 2013

Movie Review: In 'Prisoners' Gyllenhaal's roling along

Jake Gyllenhaal, ever on the lookout for meatier characters to inhabit, finds one right up his alley in ‘Prisoners.’

By STEVEN ZEITCHIK McClatchy Newspapers

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Jake Gyllenhaal as Detective Loki in "Prisoners."

Warner Bros.

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Jake Gyllenhaal as Detective Loki tries to get a grip on an enraged Keller Dover, played by Hugh Jackman.


"PRISONERS," starring Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Maria Bello, Paul Dano, Viola Davis, Melissa Leo and Terrence Howard. Directed by Denis Villeneuve. Rated R for disturbing violent content including torture, and language throughout. Running time: 2:30

Villeneuve first cast him in "Enemy," an erotic thriller adapted from a Jose Saramago novel. Gyllenhaal plays both lead parts -- a teacher and an unemployed actor who may be his doppelg?er. The movie, which does not yet have U.S. distribution, has a Jungian quality and evokes the brooding, paranoid spirit of other double-trouble movies such as "Dead Ringers" and "Black Swan."

Shortly after they started working on "Enemy," Villeneuve began pushing Gyllenhaal to take on "Prisoners" as well. Though it's rare for a high-profile actor to make such a back-to-back commitment with a little-known director, Gyllenhaal believed it was a risk worth taking and signed on long before "Enemy" was completed.

"The most success I've had in my career comes from those shots, those gambles -- 'Brokeback,' 'Donnie Darko.' You have to know what games you're good at. You have to know what position you play," Gyllenhaal said. "I love movies that are saying things that people might find odd at times. I don't find them odd at all. They give me comfort."

Both films played at the Toronto film festival that ended Sunday, and both received strong reviews. "Prisoners," in particular, has been a favorite; Variety called the actor's turn a "career best" and noted the "full breadth of his impressive range."

Directed from a script by Aaron Guzikowski, the movie slyly explores questions of revenge, parental responsibility, individualism and the suspicions that rattle around the human brain. Gyllenhaal's Loki swaggeringly tries to crack the difficult case of two missing girls on behalf of a contractor named Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman), whose daughter disappears along with a friend outside their small-town Pennsylvania home. Convinced Loki is not doing enough, Dover secretly kidnaps the man he believes abducted the girls (Paul Dano) and tortures him to find the truth. As Loki is thwarted by the case, he and Dover become mistrustful of each other.

Gyllenhaal plays the part with a mixture of sympathy and bravado; prominent tattoos and references to a tough childhood suggest a criminal past that further colors the character. The performance is rife with subtle contradictions. Loki is full of bravado about his ability to find the kidnapper but also is manifestly unsure of how to do it.


Those who worked with him on the movie say Gyllenhaal seems to be growing out of a boyishness that marked many of his roles.

"When I knew him years before he seemed like such a boy," said Maria Bello, who co-stars in "Prisoners" as Dover's wife. "And as soon as I saw him at the reading (of the 'Prisoners' script), I sensed a depth, an anger, a sense of experience, a sense of having lived more than I ever had sensed, a fight within himself that made his work so interesting."

In many scenes, he can also be seen blinking obsessively, a tic that adds a layer of humanity and that only came about after he talked Villeneuve into letting him try it.

"I remember meeting Denis before we shot the movie, and I said, 'I think the character has some physical tic or attribute,"' Gyllenhaal said. "And I could see his reaction," the actor recalled, laughing. "Directors can have a sense of terror when you suggest something like that."

Many days on the set of "Prisoners," Gyllenhaal, Villeneuve and the film's decorated cinematographer Roger Deakins would huddle and plan shots that weren't in the script. "It was just the three of us, calling a play. You go deep, you cut over the middle," Gyllenhaal said.

Besides his turn to moodier fare, he has been branching out in other ways. After living in Los Angeles for most of his life, he moved to New York a few years ago. It was a welcome change of scenery for someone who was born into Hollywood. His father, Stephen Gyllenhaal, is a prolific director, and his mother, Naomi Foner, has written scripts for numerous movies. His sister, the actress Maggie Gyllenhaal, is married to Peter Sarsgaard.

"I heard about the movie business before I even knew what it was," said the actor. "So I surround myself now with people who are like, 'Can we not talk about movies for an hour?'" That is true -- to an extent. Gyllenhaal, who is not married, has been romantically linked to a number of high-profile entertainers over the years, including Reese Witherspoon, Kirsten Dunst and Taylor Swift.

He'll soon be returning to L.A. for a few months to shoot "Nightcrawler." At Toronto, the actor was also coming off a hectic Labor Day weekend packing up his New York apartment in preparation for the move. Sipping coffee, he showed that, for all of the machismo on screen, he still carried a sentimental side.

"If it was a choice given to me, I would have been at Rosh Hashanah," he said. "I would have been eating apple and honey with my nieces."


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