Review: The struggle is real for Jake Gyllenhaal in ‘Demolition’

TORONTO – Early on in Jean Marc Vallee”s new drama “Demolition” there is a moment where Davis Mitchell (Jake Gyllenhaal) steps into a private washroom to gather himself for a moment.  He”s escaping from the reception for his wife”s funeral after she passed away in a tragic car accident.  The blank faced Davis looks into the mirror and attempts to muster up enough emotion to cry because as the widower he should be a bawling wreck, right?  Frustratingly, as hard as he tries he can”t go there.  Clearly, Davis isn”t handling the death of his wife as he”s expected to.

Before Julia (Heather Lind) was killed Davis appeared – by his own account, mind you – to be a very structured and driven guy.  He”d get up at 5 AM so he could fit in a workout before heading into the city for his job as a successful investment banker.  He was clean-shaven (almost everywhere), lived in an immaculately modern home and couldn”t believe he”d become the sort of guy who carried a brief case to work.  Now, he”s a wandering shell of his former self who wants to take everything apart around him even if that means taking a sledgehammer to it.  His actions can be awkwardly funny, but you know it”s only a self defense mechanism to mask a deep, deep pain.  

Admittedly, a drama about a rich white guy trying to recover from a personal tragedy is nothing new.  In this case, Vallee and screenwriter Bryan Sipe want to play with the audience”s expectations of how people react to personal loss (and if they can make you sympathize for a wealthy person, even better).  When Davis shuts down he becomes fixated on communicating with Champion Vending, a company whose faulty machine took his money while he waited at the hospital for word on Julia”s condition. He writes lengthy, hand written letters describing what”s happened to him in context of his overall complaint.  It becomes his outlet to deal with his shock and the filmmakers” device to explain his present and past life.  What Davis never expected, however, is for someone at the vending company to contact him regarding his inquiries.

During their first phone conversation, Karen (Naomi Watts), Champion”s sole customer service rep, declares, “Your letters made me cry.  Do you have anyone to talk to?”  It seems Davis has already sent four letters and he jumps at the chance to meet someone interested in a plight he can”t even verbalize himself.  Even though Julia”s parents Phil (Chris Cooper) and Margot (Polly Draper) have offered to help he can”t believe a stranger would take the time to reach out to him about this.

Karen is genuinely sympathetic to Davis” situation and shares a common sadness regarding her own life.  Her boyfriend is her boss (never a good idea), she”s stuck working a low end office job (likely why she smokes pot to ease the stress) and her beloved teenage son, Chris (Judah Lewis), keeps getting into trouble at school.  There is something in Davis” letters that makes her believe they must be kindred spirits of some kind.  And, before you know it, she”s allowing Davis to crash in her spare bedroom in a desperate attempt to get away from his real life.

This sort of storyline could go wrong very quickly, but thanks to some fortuitously funny moments, Vallee”s assured direction and Gyllenhaal”s spectacular performance it”s surprisingly compelling.  And, let”s be absolutely clear: it”s Gyllenhaal who keeps it all together.

Over the past three years the 34-year-old actor has delivered one incredible turn after another in pictures such as “End of Watch,” “Enemy” and “Nightcrawler,” among others.  Gyllenhaal doesn”t deliver the physical transformation that accompanied the latter film or “Southpaw” this past summer, but his performance in “Demolition” may be the most nuanced of them all.   Many actors would be unable to play Davis without a smart audience picking up when the gears begin to turn.  Even great actors can fall prey to telegraphing each stage of their character”s development (see Ben Foster).  Gyllenhaal smooths over any of those potential rough spots and finds a way to ground Davis” grief even when it may seem over-the-top on the page.  That”s quite an accomplishment.

The disappointment in “Demolition” comes mostly from the fact Watts and Cooper”s seem strangely miscast.  Any romantic involvement between Davis and Karen is only meant as a slight tease, but because they have very little chemistry their character”s on screen friendship becomes a secondary concern much too quickly. As fine an actress as Watts is you have to wonder if she was simply the wrong choice here (a concern echoed in Gus Van Sant”s “Sea of Trees” where she generated few sparks opposite Matthew McConaughey).

In theory, Cooper should be the perfect actor to play Davis” father-in-law and for much of the picture he”s professionally on the mark.  That is until a key scene where Phil can”t take Davis antics anymore.  Shockingly, Cooper”s attempt at depicting Phil”s emotional frustration feels forced.   Perhaps Cooper was having an off day or Vallee went with the wrong take, but we expected more from the well-respected Oscar winner.

The good news is Lewis makes up for both of his peers.  13-years-old at the time of filming, Lewis joins “Beasts of No Nation”s” Abraham Attah and “Room”s” Jacob Tremblay be delivering another unexpected, but impressive turn this festival season.   Unlike Watts, Lewis and Gyllenhaal do have chemistry together.  Although Chris is a typically abrasive teenager when first introduced, Lewis is able to immediately convey there is something else going on underneath the surface.  When Chris makes an out of the blue admission about his sexual orientation to Davis in the middle of a supply store aisle, both actors play it with an honestly you rarely see on screen.  And it works just as much because of Lewis contributions as it does Gyllenhaal”s.

As expected, Vallee and his longtime cinematographer Yves Bélanger continue some of the cinematic motifs they employed on their previous two collaborations, “Wild” and “Dallas Buyers Club.” For example, Davis will remember Julia in a quick flashback or she”ll appear in a mirror or as a reflection in a pool of water before moving out of frame. These moments are similar to the recollections Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon) had of her mother (Laura Dern) in “Wild.”  If this becomes a signature Vallee technique it”s certainly more welcome and effective than lens flares.  Overall, look is slightly more polished than the grainy, hand held imagery Bélanger explored in the aforementioned films, but considering Davis” high-class life it works.

Obviously, “Demolition” is a movie about how we deal with grief and, yes, Davis will eventually find himself on a better path.   Thanks to Gyllenhaal”s incredible efforts, though, it”s a more emotional and relatable journey than you might expect.

“Demolition” is currently scheduled to open on April 8, 2016