A few weeks ago, I was in a local drug store by my apartment in New York City. Near the back of the store, there’s a discount rack where everything is 25 percent off its the original price. Mixed in with overstocked seasonal items was a LEGO set for the 2010 movie ‘Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.’ Included in the set was a mini LEGO figure of Jake Gyllenhaal. He’s riding an ostrich. As I stared in disbelief at LEGO Jake Gyllenhaal riding an ostrich, it felt a bit like staring into an alternate future where these were the kind of movies that Gyllenhaal was still making … instead of a glorious movie like ‘Nightcrawler.’

‘Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time’ grossed only $90 million domestically, but did very well internationally, pulling in $336 million total. This still wasn’t enough to justify a sequel, which was planned. If ‘Prince of Persia’ had been a hit, Gyllenhaal would probably be on his third ‘Persia’ movie by now. Look at Robert Downey Jr.: his new film, ‘The Judge’ (which also premiered here at the Toronto International Film Festival) is the first non-Iron Man or Sherlock Holmes role for Downey (save a cameo in ‘Chef’) since 2010’s ‘Due Date.’ Granted, we all like Downey as Iron Man, but it would be nice to see him do something different.

Matthew McConaughey, deservedly, gets a lot of credit for changing the narrative of his career from a guy who starred in dopey romantic comedies to the guy who won the Academy Award for Best Actor earlier this year. Granted, Gyllenhaal’s, let’s say, diversion wasn’t as long and wasn’t as obvious. Gyllenhaal’s dumb movies never defined him like McConaughey’s did. Actually, Gyllenhaal doesn’t really have that many bad movies – which makes his participation in what would have been the ‘Prince of Persia’ franchise even more striking.

(At last year’s festival when Gyllenhaal was promoting ‘Prisoners’ and ‘Enemy,’ I asked him if he was happy that ‘Prince of Persia’ failed. He did not say “no.”)

Gyllenhaal is back at TIFF this year in support of Dan Gilroy’s directorial debut, ‘Nightcrawler.’ In ‘Nightcrawler,’ Gyllenhaal plays Lou Bloom, an overenthusiastic misanthrope who finds his career calling after watching a freelance film crew (led by a resurged Bill Paxton, who is having quite a year) film a graphic auto accident, then sell that footage to a local news station. Bloom – already a petty thief; specializing in stolen scrap metal – throws himself into his new job as a “Nightcrawler,” filming any car accident or murder that his police scanner reports, then selling this footage to a local television station manager (Rene Russo) with the worst ratings in town. Her ratings fortunes change after airing Lou’s video, which are sometimes obtained using questionable means. (Let’s just say that Lou isn’t afraid to enter a crime scene without permission.)

‘Nightcrawler’ feels like genre, even though I suspect the people involved with ‘Nightcrawler’ are trying to avoid getting their movie labeled as “genre.” Gyllenhaal gives what just may be the most interesting performance of his career. Lou Bloom is despicable, yet we find ourselves rooting for Lou Bloom. There’s an intense charisma on display here that I’ve never quite seen out of Gyllenhaal before. I’ve already seen Gyllenhaal’s Bloom compared to Jim Carrey in ‘The Cable Guy’ based on the trailers. This isn’t really a fair comparison. Jim Carrey took his Cable Guy character over the edge of the absurd, Gyllenhaal never does that. Gyllenhaal brings Lou Bloom up to the point of absurd, but never over. Lou Bloom always feels real. This is why Lou Bloom is frightening. (And ‘Nightcrawler’ has a lot to say about media in general. It truly believes that the amount of eyeballs on a story will dictate the narrative of that story -- a trend that started with local news and has only been exasperated by the Internet. There’s a lot of truth in this.)

Since ‘Prince of Persia: Sands of Time,’ Gyllenhaal has made ‘Love and Other Drugs,’ ‘Source Code,’ ‘End of Watch,’ ‘Prisoners,’ ‘Enemy,’ and now ‘Nightcrawler.’ There’s a definite pattern there, as Gyllenhaal pulls himself further away from the mainstream. Further and further away from “what could have been.” Jake Gyllenhaal might just be the most interesting actor working today, though not a lot of people realize that yet … and I suspect Jake Gyllenhaal prefers it that way.

Mike Ryan has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and GQ. He is the senior editor of ScreenCrush. You can contact him directly on Twitter.

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