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There is a moment in Bong Joon-ho’s Okja when all concepts of quality spin out of whack.
I can tell you exactly when that is: just a hair over the 20 minute mark, at the instant when a squawk is heard in the distance and the camera swoops over to meet its maker. Turns out, it’s not any kind of rare species of bird, but an even rarer thing: a Jake Gyllenhaal.
Ascending onto screen like a panting and wheezing guardian angel, he emerges as Dr. Johnny Wilcox, a has been TV zoologist who possesses a very special kind of insanity. Contrasted against a sweeping, serene backdrop of the mountains of South Korea, his presence lands with the force of an atom bomb.
On the audience’s side of the screen, the minutes that follow are a frantic haze of trying (and failing) to comprehend what we’re witnessing.
‘Who is this man, whose acting I have admired for so many years? What has he done to himself? What is he doing to me? Is this… good?’
And does Jake Gyllenhaal even care? The actor’s career has shifted gears more times than you can count. A baby faced object of attraction in his early years, he turned from commerce to art to commerce and back again to where he is now. It’s hard to believe that the man who ill-advisedly played the Prince of Persia at the beginning of this decade is the very same man we see before us today – a star with complete autonomy over his career, able to work with whomever he fancies, operating comfortably within the world of arthouse cinema.
Brokeback Mountain didn’t give him that status in 2005 – although it seems, for a while, he thought it might. After a year’s break, he moved on from that success (which earned him his only Oscar nomination to date) to David Fincher’s Zodiac, a critical hit that swooped cleanly under the radar. Those post-Brokeback years are a dearth of anything coming even close to that level of interest, despite it being clear that the roles he was picking were attempts to stay within the realm of critical esteem. He may have Heath Ledger to thank for that career regression – Gyllenhaal’s Brokeback co-star gave a more lauded and prominent performance, and his rise and subsequent death overshadowed Gyllenhaal’s narrative, to which it was inextricably linked. When people thought of Brokeback Mountain – and they often did – they thought of Heath Ledger.
Gyllenhaal seemed to catch up to this sometime around 2010, when two of the most commercial movies of his career were released: rom-com Love & Other Drugs and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, a woefully misguided blockbuster that, to the relief of everyone involved, has mostly been forgotten. Its release was a turning point. Afterwards, Gyllenhaal strong-armed himself into the actor he is today. It’s hard to know who to thank, but some of that applause should go to a man who we’d do well to thank for a whole host of other treasures, Gyllenhaal related or not: Denis Villeneuve.
Prisoners and Enemy, both of which played at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival, collectively gave Gyllenhaal three roles that allowed him to show an ability to operate within the bounds of more obscure arthouse cinema – Enemy in particular earned him the respect of some who were reluctant to accept him as a legitimate force in cinema, whether for the right or the wrong reasons.
It’s a movie that is almost impossible to completely untangle, and the fact that someone who had once aimed for movie stardom would approach something like this with conviction was fascinating news. He’s had his eyes trained on similar fare since.
Is it necessary to understand the life and career of Jake Gyllenhaal in order to make sense of his performance in Okja? This piece of acting is such a foreign object, that I’m not sure how to begin approaching it. Taking a running jump seems as good a vantage point as any.
This is less the job of a film critic than a psychologist. What’s going on behind those crazed eyes is anybody’s guess, but there’s much to be gleaned from the way his 2016 has been going so far.
Think back to March, and the release of Life. It’s a mid-budget sci-fi that was passed over by most of the movie going public, so you might have to strain to recall its existence – but by my estimation, it’s not a bad little B-movie.
Its undeniable classification as a ‘B-movie’ is what I’m interested in. That this creature feature ends in the delightfully ludicrous way that it does is proof enough that it deserves to be categorised as ‘pulp’. That’s far from what Gyllenhaal has spent the last few years building towards. That wasn’t an accidental decision either: ‘Personally, I wanted to do the film to have fun’, Gyllenhaal admitted without hesitation. ‘I considered it a bit of a respite’.
The fun isn’t over. That’s the little pocket of time we’re living in right now: these six months that have given us Life and Okja is Jake Gyllenhaal’s downtime.
Roles such as those he took on in Nightcrawler and Southpaw caused emotional and physical strain in a very real way. He’s said himself of his method approach in those cases, ‘I lost a sort of sense of imagination and fun in my process’.
It won’t last forever. Later this year he’s returning to roles that are geared towards earning that second Oscar nomination, with traditional dramas Stronger and Wildlife.
Tackling the Boston Marathon bombing and a family crisis respectively, they’re not the fun that Gyllenhaal was talking about. That’s over for now, but it’s given us something we won’t ever be able to forget.
So, the inevitable question: Is it possible to classify whatever Jake Gyllenhaal is doing in Okja as good? It may seem an impossible question to answer, but I’ve done it. After a period of desperate clawing at rapidly disappearing concepts of logic, the inevitable conclusion became clear: it doesn’t matter. It’s neither. We might as well invent a whole new word to describe what went on in that man’s head during those sacred days of shooting – and the stuff that his voice and body produced as a result.
His arms flail like they’re a newly grown third pair of limbs. His shorts appear to have vertically shrunk. The legs they reveal are more like stilts. His voice… Bong Joon-ho described his vision for Dr. Johnny’s voice by drawing a picture of a guitar and pointing at the top of the strings. He told Gyllenhaal that his voice sounded like that – like the bit of the guitar that you don’t play. He took that interpretation and ran with it, turning out something that could most accurately be described as Pee-wee Herman on crack – which is quite an achievement, given that Pee-wee Herman sounds like he’s on crack as it is.
Co-writer Jon Ronson based the character on BBC children’s presenter Johnny Morris – I’m sure he’d be flattered.
Dr. Johnny’s public persona as a family-friendly figure figures into Gyllenhaal’s interpretation immensely: “In order to speak, particularly with children, there is this strange affectation that people seem to take. We all seem to do it in one way or another, these bad performances we give to children that just become magnified when we are on television”.
We are the children. Gyllenhaal is magnificently aware of just how insane he’s being. It’s the kind of over-the-top that’s become taboo. His performance, while loved by some, has been criticised by many as one of the worst of the year. But if you allow yourself to, it’s impossible not to find some enjoyment in the unpredictability of his antics. The vast extent to which Gyllenhaal goes for it is dangerous, unexplored waters. I wondered for a while whether, as a critic, I could responsibly classify what he was doing as ‘good’. Is Dr. Johnny believable, and is he meant to be? If not, is that really a good enough excuse?
But that’s just it. Why must we have to excuse ourselves for what we love? The execution of Dr. Johnny Wilcox is more a museum piece than a piece of acting. It is an object of fascination, and it is exuberantly fun.
There comes a point when you just have to let yourself have the joy that comes from watching him, at the expense of critical thought. Critical thought is, at the end of the day, useless when it is blocking the opportunity to experience something unique and joyous. Gyllenhaal knows that. He’s just waiting for all of us to catch up.
The world may never recover from Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance in Okja. Stars will implode, galaxies will collide, planets will do whatever planets do, but this one shining moment of acting glory will remain. The universe won’t know what to do with this indefinable piece of matter, so it’ll just let it be. It is indestructible, impossible to re-create. It is a blip in space and time. It will outlive us all.