Jake Gyllenhaal refocuses his career

TORONTO--When director Denis Villeneuve first approached Jake Gyllenhaal to star as a detective in his new dramatic thriller, "Prisoners," the actor was skeptical. The movie contained plenty of genre elements — heinous crime, creepy suspect — that could have turned it into pulp cliché. And besides, Gyllenhaal, fresh off the LAPD street story "End of Watch," had just played a cop.

"The initial conscious response was, 'Another drama where I played a member of a law enforcement? I don't know,'" Gyllenhaal said. "But to me, this is a movie about the unconscious."

Indeed, there is much going on beneath the surface of "Prisoners," both with the detective and the man who plays him.

Det. Loki is one of the more complicated police presences on the big screen recently. Moving beyond the conventions of the typical screen gumshoe, Loki is a man brimming with confidence but boiling with rage, as firmly convinced of the need for justice as he is frustrated by his inability to bring it about.

The film, which opens Friday, is also the result of another mental journey to a dark place for the actor, who has been submerging his consciousness in roles like this recently and in the process reenergizing his career. Eight years after he landed a supporting Oscar nomination for "Brokeback Mountain," Gyllenhaal, at 32, looks to be making good on the promise he showed in that film and creating work to match his level of popularity.

SNEAKS: Movie trailers, full coverage

Among male movie stars of his generation, Gyllenhaal long been in the top percentiles with a high Q score and an unusual degree of association with cultural phenomena (“Brokeback,” “Donnie Darko”) as well as critical darlings (“Zodiac,” “The Good Girl.”) But big studio movies haven't always been kind to him. Two years after his turn as the naive love interest in 2002's "The Good Girl," there was the Roland Emmerich kitchen-sink effects tale "The Day After Tomorrow."

And his well-regarded role as the author Robert Graysmith in 2007's "Zodiac" led to the maligned desert action-adventure "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time" several years later. Some actors grow into themselves when they move to a bigger stage (think: Denzel Washington). But for Gyllenhaal, these movies didn't play to his strengths, and he seemed dwarfed by his surroundings.

Watching Gyllenhaal in “Prince of Persia” was a little like seeing a really talented fencer try to lead a cavalry raid--he had the individual skills, but the stage and setting seemed all wrong. Ditto for the 2010 romantic dramedy “Love and Other Drugs,” where the confines and stakes were smaller but had a similarly one-dimensional arc.

This has left him with a kind of restless questioning, a desire to do things grittier, more his own way, not simply to jump on the next sleek passing vessel.
He demonstrated the point with striking clarity recently when he opted out of a Disney adaptation of the big-budget fairy tale musical "Into the Woods" to sign on to something more moody — an indie thriller called "Nightcrawler" in which he'll play a Los Angeles crime journalist.

It's not an accident that he's taken on the wounded masculinity of movies such as "End of Watch" and "Prisoners" just as he's taken up boxing and mixed-martial arts, the ultimate sports for actors craving both swagger and pain. As with those endeavors, Gyllenhaal believes if he just picks his targets with enough foresight and engages in enough preparation, he can get to an optimal career place and land his punches.

PHOTOS: Fall movie sneaks 2013

"I can't totally put it into words, but I feel like I've begun to prepare in strange ways in the past three or four movies, starting with 'End of Watch,'" said the soft-spoken but intense actor. "I don't think I'm sharp enough to not prepare and come on set and kill it. I've learned over the years that freedom is just the other side of discipline."

To play an L.A. cop in David Ayer's "End of Watch" last year, Gyllenhaal spent months on the beat with police observing "extraordinary and horrific things." Soon after that, he began working with the French Canadian auteur Villeneuve, whose "Incendies" was nominated for 2011's foreign-language Oscar and was notable for its brutal revelations.

Villeneuve had heard that Gyllenhaal was hungry for the gritty stuff, and traveled to New York to meet with him. "Jake and I decided to work together after a first meeting, drinking red wine...talking, talking, talking, about cinema, art, women, subconscious, cinema, women, poetry, cinema, women and cinema," he said.

Villeneuve first cast him in "Enemy," an erotic thriller adapted from a José Saramago novel. Gyllenhaal plays both lead parts — a teacher and an unemployed actor who may be his doppelgänger. 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. Shortly after they started working on “Enemy,” Villeneuve began pushing Gyllenhaal to take on “Prisoners” as well. (The director was further sold on the actor watching him perform in the 2012 off-Broadway show “If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet,” in which Gyllenhaal played a slacker uncle. (The piece was well received, as reviewers lauded the ease with which Gyllenhaal inhabited an uncomfortable character.)

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.

PHOTOS: Hollywood backlot moments

"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 ends 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."