Jake Gyllenhaal Brings A-Game To Oddball "Demolition"

Anyone who knows grief knows its intangible dimensionality, how it ebbs and flows without logic or reason. It’s a feeling that filmmakers greater than Jean-Marc Vallée (“Wild”) have gotten wrong, often mistaking cliché for universality or undervaluing its raw, uninhibited power. It’s with great verve, then, that Vallée’s supremely confident “Demolition” breezes through 100 minutes of grief and catharsis on the back of yet another dazzling performance from Jake Gyllenhaal and an uncommonly emotive, sneakily funny screenplay that wears cliché as an accessory instead of its whole ensemble.

Gyllenhaal plays Davis Mitchell, a successful investment banker and husband to Julia (Heather Lind). The film opens on the two bickering in their car, huffing and puffing over the same trivialities we all do. But instead of resolving their argument, its left to hang indefinitely when their car is T-boned and Julia dies instantly.

Cut to the hospital where a newly widowed Davis is fretting over a bag of candy stuck in a vending machine – hanging indefinitely.

Whether Davis’ obsession with the vending machine is a result of shock or compartmentalization or a burgeoning catatonic state, it cleverly informs the entirety of the narrative. Screenwriter Bryan Sipe soon finds Davis writing a lengthy, persnickety letter to the vending machine company by which he imparts his feelings – or lack thereof – concerning his wife’s death. More life-stricken than grief-stricken, his eyes are now trained on a proxy for his tragedy – one that feels controllable.

Davis soon gets on the phone with a rep for the company, Karen (Naomi Watts). As the two develop an improbable friendship, our lead begins his long descent into the literal deconstruction of his former life.

He begins by taking apart his kitchen appliances merely to parse through their innards, to gain some understanding of how they work. Then it’s on to bigger and better things – the actual demolition of his chic abode.

With the help of Karen’s wayward teenage son, Chris (Judah Lewis), the Mitchell house becomes a hard hat area for its two-man wrecking crew, replete with a full-sized bulldozer. By the time Davis’ incredulous father-in-law (Chris Cooper) stops by to see the destruction firsthand, Davis has become a true believer in his own violent brand of therapy, falling apart so he can come together.

With such sweeping metaphor inevitably comes story elements that don’t work.

Watts’ character does little for the narrative as a whole, existing mostly as a vent for Davis’ frustrations, and then to introduce Chris and his angsty perspective to the equation. Karen all but disappears from the film by its midway point, cropping up only when the script requires her to. Watts is fine in the role but not utilized as effectively as she’s been in other dramatic roles (see: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s “21 Grams”).

Chris Cooper is similarly underused. Vallée’s artful act I crosscutting between the car accident and past interactions between Davis and his wife’s family goes a long way in juxtaposing life’s disparate emotional corners. But outside of those scenes, Cooper’s appearances have little bearing on the story. Perhaps meant as a stand-in for the audience, as a symbol of disbelief, we find ourselves relating to Davis and Chris so much more.

Accordingly, the film belongs wholly to Gyllenhaal and Lewis, whose scenes together are both morose and jubilant, nonsensical and entirely rational, two lost souls finding something vital in one another.

Gyllenhaal has quietly become one of the greats, consistently picking fascinating projects that might not outwardly seem like a good fit for his talents. But from “Zodiac” to “Prisoners” to “Nightcrawler,” he’s shown an innate talent for burrowing into dark material and finding its guts – and “Demolition” is no exception.

His performance here is a sweet spot of disaffection and hyper awareness, relaying more in glances than many actors do in a script’s worth of words. Newcomer Lewis is nearly as good, cementing his status as a young actor to keep an eye on.

It doesn’t hurt that Vallée’s direction here is as stylish as any, rife with memorable visuals and slick editing that hammers home his themes. The metaphor will be too much, too obvious for some viewers. But Vallée is undeniably in control of his vision. For many, it will add up to a life-affirming, left-of-center piece of cinema that smartly fends off detours into weepy melodrama. Recommended.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: April 8, 2016
Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
Screenwriter: Bryan Sipe
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Naomi Watts, Chris Cooper, Judah Lewis, Heather Lind
MPAA Rating: R (for language, some sexual references, drug use and disturbing behavior)