There are a lot of actors who get famous for playing intense roles filled with screaming matches and pounding chests. But few of them can hold a candle to Jake Gyllenhaal, an underappreciated master of intensity. He’s got the perfect combination of boy-next-door innocence, charisma and mystery to do something special with pretty much any role. Lately, however, it seems Gyllenhaal has become Hollywood’s go-to actor for characters who are more than a little bit unhinged.
His latest is Nocturnal Animals, where he plays a jilted lover with a questionable grip on reality. In anticipation of yet another haunting role for the actor we’ve put together this highly scientific Gyllenhaal Intensity Scale that ranks not his movies, but how crazy he can be in them.
10. Bubble Boy (2001)
Though it doesn’t often show in his current movies, there is a goofy side to Jake Gyllenhaal. In Bubble Boy he plays a young man whose allergies to everything have kept him walled away from the world, until one day he sets out on an adventure to discover everything he’s been missing in life. It’s essentially the exact opposite of what every expects from a Gyllenhall performance today.
Similar intensity:City Slickers (1991), where a young Gyllenhaal plays Billy Crystal’s embarrassed son.
9. October Sky (1999)
Just a notch above Bubble Boy as far as raging Gyllenhaal goes is his role in October Sky as a teenager who takes up rocket science as a means of rebelling against his gruff coal miner father. You know, typical rebellious kid stuff. It’s a performance filled with golly-gee optimism and sprinkles of teenage angst. In retrospect perhaps what’s most striking about October Sky, however, is how it showed Gyllenhaal could hold his own against some of the best actors of our time (Chris Cooper, in this case).
Similar intensity:Accidental Love (2015), in which Gyllenhaal plays a goofy politician filled with golly-gee optimism.
8. Donnie Darko (2001)
Considering the film’s reputation as being a beacon for emotionally intense teenagers, you’d think Donnie Darko would rank higher on this list. The reason it doesn’t is that this is all about subdued intensity. It’s not flashy, it’s not in your face. This is just Gyllenhaal brooding and simmering before boiling over.
Similar intensity: The Day After Tomorrow (2004), in which Gyllenhaal once again plays an in-over-his-head teenager.
7. Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Brokeback Mountain is a film about an intense love, but what makes it such a special, caring film is that it never gets unnecessarily dramatic, it never pushes things too far just to manipulate a moment. That works wonders for the movie, but it also means that Gyllenhaal is required to play things more subtly compared to other films on this list.
Similar intensity:Love and Other Drugs (2010), where Gyllenhaal is in another relationship that never goes how he expects.
6. Source Code (2011)
Jake Gyllenhaal is a master of playing the likable guy-next-door. In Source Code that guy just so happens to be trapped in a constant state of near death. Things get intense, we get a lot of great moments of Gyllenhaal literally racing against time to save the day, but he somehow keeps things charismatic and in control the entire time. It’s the perfect midpoint between light and dark.
Similar intensity:Prince of Persia (2010), where Gyllenhall also plays a hero who manipulates time to save the day.
5. Rendition (2007)
Gyllenhaal is not the star of Rendition, but it’s particularly noteworthy because in it Gyllenhaal plays a CIA officer who has to act tough. The result is a Gyllenhaal who gets to play with more subtle drama while also exploding when necessary.
Similar intensity: Brothers (2009), in which Gyllenhaal plays a brooding character whose life is forever changed by overseas terrorism.
4. Prisoners (2013)
There is a quiet intensity that Gyllenhaal does so well in a few movies, though it’s most noteworthy in Prisoners. It happens when he plays someone who feels like everyone around him is hiding something, which lets Gyllenhaal act as if everyone is a suspect. It’s a special flavor of intensity borne out of obsession.
Similar intensity:Zodiac (2007), in which Gyllenhaal plays a man who never seems to trust the people around him.
3. End of Watch (2012)
There’s a unique energy to End of Watch that Gyllenhaal’s other movies don’t have, but that’s mainly due to its faux-documentary shooting style. But it combines remarkably well with the escalating insanity of the situation Gyllenhaal’s cop character finds himself in, letting him swing from comedy to nail-bitting tension.
Similar intensity:Southpaw (2015), where Gyllenhaal underwent a huge physical transformation to play a boxer literally fighting to keep his life together after it’s ripped apart.
2. Jarhead (2005)
Jake Gyllenhaal is let loose on the hyper testosterone of the Marines in Jarhead and uses it to deliver a remarkable performance that is as big and angry as it is nuanced and tragic. His performance was unfortunately a bit overlooked back in 2005, but was a clear indicator of where Gyllenhaal’s career was heading.
Similar intensity:Enemy (2013), where Gyllenhaal plays a man confused about his place in the world and what’s expected of him.
1. Nightcrawler (2014)
There are other movies where Gyllenhaal is given material that allows for a showier kind of intensity, yet they’re still not nearly as intense as Nightcrawler. It is ultimate Gyllenhaal. In it he plays an aspiring crime journalist whose moral boundaries seemingly do not exist and whose desperation gives him a constant ferocity that is downright unnerving. His character here is more calm (and weird) compared to a others on this list, but that’s also what makes it such an intense performance. He’s a walking stick of dynamite and you never know what will set him off.
Similar intensity: Gyllenhaal has never given another performance quite like his one in Nightcrawler. But maybe Nocturnal Animals (2016) will soon join it.
Nocturnal Animals is in theaters on November 18, 2016.