Throughout the history of film, several directors have made names for themselves thanks primarily to their work with thrillers. Fritz Lang, Brian De Palma, and David Fincher — these are just a few examples of the greatest directors the genre’s ever seen. But above all, one director stood out for being the master of suspense, and of course, that was Alfred Hitchcock. He became synonymous with the thriller genre thanks to films like Rear Window (1954), Vertigo (1958), and North by Northwest (1959).
And in that vein, many actors since the dawn of film have been consistently showing up in projects that fall under the same umbrella. Though they aren’t often considered as often as their more speculative counterparts, thriller actors have been putting in great work for decades.
With nearly a dozen thrillers under his belt, one example is American actor Jake Gyllenhaal, perhaps the greatest performer the genre’s ever seen. But he’s a much more contemporary example — throughout the years, many talented actors have given him a run for his money.
Hitchcock and the Evolution of Great Thrillers
Off the bat, it’s worth noting that Alfred Hitchcock recruited a few key collaborators to help see his projects into thrilling fruition. James Stewart and Cary Grant starred in four films a piece, while Gracy Kelly appeared in three. And each Hitchcock thriller under their respective belts helps render them among the finest actors the genre has ever seen.
Around that same time, Toshiro Mifune was thrilling audiences in Japan, while Alain Delon took care of business in France. And of course, Orson Welles ranks among the best to ever do it thanks to titles like The Stranger (1946) and The Third Man (1949). Then, there’s the contemporary Hollywood crew.
From Gene Hackman and Robert De Niro to Jodie Foster and Denzel Washington, some of America’s most famous thespians have mastered the thriller throughout the years. In Taxi Driver (1976), both De Niro and Foster put forth Oscar-nominated performances, with the latter later winning with The Silence of the Lambs (1991). She also co-starred alongside Washington in Inside Man (2006) by Spike Lee, with other Washington thrillers including Devil in a Blue Dress (1995) and Training Day (2001).
In terms of American performers, Hackman is perhaps the most well-regarded thanks primarily to The French Connection (1971) and Mississippi Burning (1988), along with The Conversation (1974) and French Connection II (1975). He also co-starred alongside Washington in Crimson Tide (1995). But of course, there are several actors who’ve been providing work in thrillers from the twenty-first century, like Song Kang-ho from South Korea.
Joint Security Area (2000), Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002), Memories of Murder (2003) — these are among the greatest films their region’s ever seen. They’re all thrillers, and they all feature Song in the starring roles. In the following decade, Parasite (2019) solidified him as an all-time great. But in the end, one actor from twenty-first century cinema has managed to outshine each of his contemporaries thanks to several high-quality thrillers.
The Thrillers of Jake Gyllenhaal
Near the turn of the century, Donnie Darko (2001) placed Gyllenhaal at the center of the Hollywood map. Written and directed by Richard Kelly, it’s a famous title today thanks to its having garnered a cult following. And justifiably so. It’s among the highest-quality thrillers of the twenty-first century, and it features the actor at hand in the titular role. This led to his starring in big-budget titles like The Day After Tomorrow (2004) and Oscar-winning pictures such as Brokeback Mountain (2005).
By the time his next thriller rolled around, Gyllenhaal was a massive star with household name value. His leading effort in Zodiac (2007) by David Fincher remains a highlight of the careers of everyone involved, with the non-fiction story of the infamous serial killer facilitating some truly thrilling moments all throughout its well-paced plot. That particular title greatly bolsters Gyllenhaal’s case as the greatest thriller actor ever. But some fans may forget another film in this vein that was released in that same year.
Despite receiving one of Roger Ebert’s patented, four-out-of-four-star reviews, Rendition (2007) by Gavin Hood holds a rather middling approval rating of 47% on critical consensus website Rotten Tomatoes. The aforementioned pundit had it right, with Rendition holding up well today. And in the following decade, Gyllenhaal appeared in a streak of thrillers that rival the quality of the greatest films the genre’s ever seen.
First up was Source Code (2011), a science-fiction hybrid that received widespread praise from critics and audiences alike. After that, David Ayer created the perfect police procedural, called End of Watch (2012). And in the following year, Gyllenhaal starred in two thrillers, both by the same director: Enemy (2013), and Prisoners (2013). Filmmaker Denis Villeneuve saw the projects into wonderfully thrilling fruition, and they’re both among the greatest films of their year. Then, there’s Nightcrawler (2014).
Regardless of genre, that stint by Dan Gilroy is perhaps the most critically acclaimed film of Gyllenhaal’s career. And what’s more is that, in a four-year culmination, Nightcrawler marked the fifth straight thriller with this actor in the lead role. Since, he’s starred in others such as Nocturnal Animals (2016), The Guilty (2021), and Ambulance (2022). All decent films.
What further bolsters Gyllenhaal’s claim to the throne is that, on top of consistently appearing in well-made thrillers, he puts personal stamps on his performances that render them truly unique.
Gyllenhaal’s Career-Defining Performances
Before filming Donnie Darko, director Richard Kelly granted Gyllenhaal notable latitude in the creative department. The two sat together one-on-one to amend parts of Donnie’s dialogue, with the actor of the hour making a key suggestion that created an intriguing electricity to the film’s most important dynamic. For those unfamiliar: It features an off-the-wall plot about the titular teenager who has visions of Frank, a mysterious figure that dons a rabbit costume.
It was Jake’s idea to speak to Frank in a way that resembled “a child talking to its blanket”, and most fans would agree that the effect was executed to perfection. Even two decades later, his performance as Donnie remains one of the finest of his career. He was only nineteen years old, and he received a nomination at the Independent Spirit Awards for Best Male Lead. With a possessed essence, his efforts displayed an off-the-bat penchant for acting while also showcasing his behind-the-scenes genius.
It’d be another decade or so before a director gave Gyllenhaal that same sort of freedom. But with both Zodiac and End of Watch, he put in extensive research and training for his respective roles. In the former, he interviewed Robert Graysmith, the real-life figure whom he portrayed. And with End of Watch, he and co-star Michael Peña trained for five months with combat specialists and law enforcement to appropriately prepare for their roles.
Both movies feature impressive performances from Gyllenhaal, and they’re among the finest thrillers ever made — the same can be said for Prisoners. In the Denis Villeneuve thriller, the actor at hand plays Detective Loki, and in many ways, he made the character his own. It was Gyllenhaal’s idea to give the character tattoos and facial tics, with the latter element providing tremendous nuance to his performance, which in turn showcased a true commitment to the craft.
He then dedicated himself to Nightcrawler by cutting over twenty pounds for his leading effort. And as Lou Bloom, many of Gyllenhaal’s expressions seem to transcend the bounds of human physiology. It’s a true injustice he wasn’t nominated for an Academy Award, and overall, the film is among the greatest in a streak of amazing thrillers.
Like Alfred Hitchcock in the director’s chair, Gyllenhaal has put in legendary work in front of the camera. He consistently performs with a palpable passion, a resonant gravitas that makes him the greatest in thriller history.