It’ll take you a few minutes to recognize Jake Gyllenhaal in Southpaw, the boxing movie opening in theaters nationwide this Friday. His face shines with sweat and is streaked with blood, his eye is so swollen that it can only open a mere sliver, and tattoos run across his chiseled chest. But even if he’s barely recognizable, Southpaw is very much the Jake Gyllenhaal show.
Earlier this month, Terrence Rafferty set off a cultural debate with his Atlantic piece “The Decline of the American Actor” in which he lamented the lack of interesting opportunities for actors under 40, many of whom are currently biding their time in superhero movies and other heavyweight franchises. One of the many problems facing young actors is the traditional American reluctance to play bad guys (just think of the last time Will Smith or Bradley Cooper took on a role with darker undertones). Jake Gyllenhaal is one of the few exceptions. In the last few years, he’s gone from one morally compromised role to the next: a tortured detective in the bleak thriller Prisoners (2013); doppelgangers whose mutual fascination has fatal consequences in Enemy (2013); and finally an emaciated, terrifying sociopath-cum-tabloid-photographer in last year’s Nightcrawler.
In this context, Southpaw, for which Gyllenhaal put on 15 pounds of pure muscle, is a natural fit. Billy Hope isn’t a villain, but he’s very much his own worst enemy. A champion heavyweight boxer whose life spins out of control after tragedy strikes his family, Hope spirals into self-destructive behavior that derails his boxing career and sends his daughter to social services. The film is set up like a straightforward redemption story, but what makes Southpaw interesting is the complexity of Hope’s character—thanks to Gyllenhaal’s exceptional performance.
Just when he’s at his most sympathetic, he flies into a rage and crashes his car into a tree. He can’t walk away from a fight, no matter how idiotic, and he can’t admit his own mistakes, no matter how painfully obvious. Gyllenhaal melts into the role completely, walking and talking like a man who’s been beaten up too many times. But while his rages are furious, his tenderness is sincere. His limitations are many and obvious. Billy Hope might not be your most likeable guy, but Gyllenhaal doesn’t care if you like him. He wants you to understand him.
Like most sports movies, Southpaw doesn’t exactly have a surprising plot, but it’s extremely compelling and entertaining throughout. Boxing, with all its spectacle, lends itself particularly well to movies because the stakes are so high, so immediate. You see the impact of each blow, the jaw snapping back, the whites of the fighters’ eyes. Like in Russell Crowe’s Cinderella Man (2005) and Warrior (2011), there’s much more at stake here than a simple championship. There’s a moment in the climactic fight in Southpaw, where Gyllenhaal sits slumped in the corner awaiting—dreading—the next round. The camera approaches him from slightly below, almost as if it’s slumping with him, and in that shot it’s clear that even in triumph there is defeat.
There may be a lack of opportunity for young American actors. Plump roles like Martin Luther King, Jr., Abraham Lincoln, and even Batman have all gone to British actors in recent years. Chris Evans has talked about quitting acting after his Marvel contract expires to turn his attention to directing, while Joseph Gordon-Levitt has devoted much of his energy to his online production company HitRecord. But Gyllenhaal is providing a strong counterargument: By the time he turns 35 this December, he will have starred in four movies this year. If they’re all as good as Southpaw, it may be time for a new debate.