Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée
Released April 8, 2016
One of Jake Gyllenhaal’s formative roles was playing Donnie Darko, an antisocial teenager who spent time talking to an imaginary evil bunny. In recent years, Gyllenhaal has explored new and challenging parts, and it should come as no surprise that a number of them cast him as someone not quite attuned to the norms of society. An eccentric cop and a sociopathic journalist are prominent examples from “Prisoners” and “Nightcrawler,” respectively. In Jean-Marc Vallée’s new film “Demolition,” Gyllenhaal is the perfect person to portray a man who deals with the untimely death of his wife in a way that can be described as anything but typical.
Investment banker Davis (Gyllenhaal) is introduced as a fierce, shrewd hard worker determined to be successful, accustomed to a certain routine that allows him to be most efficient. When his wife Julia (Heather Lind) is killed in a car crash, Davis begins to grieve in a strange way. He fixates on the vending machine in the hospital waiting room that wouldn’t give him a candy bar and begins writing a series of letters to the customer service department of the company. As his lack of social skills becomes apparent to those around him, including his disapproving father-in-law and boss (Chris Cooper), Davis begins to form a platonic relationship with Karen (Naomi Watts), the lonely woman on the receiving end of his letters, and her son Chris (Judah Lewis).
This isn’t simply a story about a man who moves on from the death of his wife by finding a new romance with someone who finds him sympathetic. Instead, it’s about a man who carefully constructed his life to the specifications he thought it should fit, including a house with so many glass windows that can be boarded up and darkened by automatically-powered shades. When one necessary component – a partner – is taken away, Davis realizes that an ordinary life is not for him, and, no longer living for someone else, he seeks to take the reins and do what makes him feel good.
This is Vallée’s follow up to “Dallas Buyers Club” and “Wild,” two Oscar-nominated films with strong protagonists determined to take on the world. In this case, Davis doesn’t care so much what the world thinks but still wants to turn what he knows on his head. While this may not be Gyllenhaal’s sharpest performance, he’s still inarguably the man for it, and Watts provides wonderful support in a sweet but not terribly likeable supporting role. “Demolition” is intriguing and involving if not totally accessible, a portrait of a man not overcome by grief but rather excited by the possibilities that looking at starting life over can bring.