Let me start off by saying that I have never been a huge Jake Gyllenhaal fan. Sure, he was great as sensitive, but ill-fated Jack Twist in Brokeback Mountain (and he received an Oscar nomination for his efforts), but he’s never really stood out for me. He seems to do best working within an ensemble cast as in Jarhead and Zodiac. In those films he is able to fully immerse himself in his character without the film resting squarely on his shoulders.So it’s no surprise that he was totally in his element in Prisoners, the English language debut from acclaimed Canadian director Denis Villeneuve. In this remarkable film, Gyllenhaal plays Detective Loki, a tattooed, obsessive cop assigned to the case of two young girls who have vanished from their neighborhood. Loki is the consummate professional, dedicating every waking moment to the case, which is made even more difficult by his wranglings with one of the missing girl’s grief-stricken, emotionally deranged father, Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman).

When we are first introduced to Loki, he is at a Chinese restaurant, eating Thanksgiving dinner alone. He flirts harmlessly with the waitress, not because he’s attracted to her, but because it’s what he should be doing if he is indeed living a life.  In reality, he is devoted solely to his job. According to screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski, Gyllenhaal built a backstory for his character, which is never fully seen played out on screen, only implied. The hint that Loki grew up in a boys’ home makes sense—it’s very clear that something deeper, not just duty, drives him. 

In keeping with an old-school sense of masculinity, Loki internalizes everything, making his few emotional outbursts all the more shocking.

Gyllenhaal’s Loki cuts an intimidating figure. Wearing a starched shirt buttoned all the way up to his neck, clad in straight-leg jeans and a dark overcoat, Loki is not your typical cop. With old-fashioned ideals of what the job means, he does not play well with others and takes the full burden of finding the missing girls upon himself alone. In keeping with an old-school sense of masculinity, Loki internalizes everything, making his few emotional outbursts all the more shocking. You can almost see Gyllenhaal’s mind at work as he purposely dulls his senses—only his erratic blinking betrays his underlying emotions as he struggles to put the pieces of the puzzle together in an investigation that reaches further and further back into the dark pasts of the town’s residents. 

Gyllenhaal expertly plays the stereotypical gumshoe, increasingly frustrated by the resistance he faces. He is the audience’s eyes and ears into the crumbling investigation, and we can trust only the events we see from his perspective, Gyllenhaal assumes the responsibility of providing the moral compass for the story with deft aplomb. It is very believable that his fellow officers look to him for answers—making his few failures on the case even more devastating.

Gyllenhaal’s most impactful scene comes near the end of the film—but I won’t reveal the details. Trust me, it is well worth the two and half hour running time to experience the denouement. With no gimmicks (the erratic blinking was a clear character choice, not a crutch) or tricks, Gyllenhaal emerges from Prisoners as a truly mature actor with a sophisticated, complex and nuanced performance to his considerable credit. For once, Gyllenhaal rises to the top of an ensemble cast rather than being a serviceable role player. He achieves a world-weary attitude and a detached sensibility that help to create a character that seems to have stepped directly out of film noir. 

Gyllenhaal emerges from 'Prisoners' as a truly mature actor with a sophisticated, complex and nuanced performance to his considerable credit. 

Given Villeneuve’s expert direction of Jake in Prisoners, it is no wonder that the two have worked together on another film—Enemy—in which Gyllenhaal gives dual performances as a man who spots his doppelganger in a movie and sets out to find him. This new film received great reviews at the 2013 Toronto Film Festival, and we honestly can’t wait to see their second feature together.