In “Demolition,” Jake Gyllenhaal plays an investment banker who’s so messed up after his wife’s sudden death that he moves to Portland, starts buying up beautiful old homes, and then tears them down in order to replace them with soulless, overpriced apartment buildings that lack sufficient on-site parking.
Just kidding! He doesn’t go that crazy!
Gyllenhaal’s character, Davis Mitchell, does work “in finance,” as he says, and his wife does meet an untimely end in an opening-scene car crash. But what’s unsettling to those around Davis, especially his wife’s father, Davis’ boss Phil (Chris Cooper, who played Gyllenhaal’s dad in 1999’s “October Sky”), is his lack of apparent bereavement. People grieve in many ways, of course, and the in-laws are somewhat patient. But when Davis starts obsessively corresponding with the customer service rep at the company that owns the hospital vending machine he got ripped off by to the tune of two bucks on the night his wife died, it’s clear that he’s gone a bit off. Said letters, of course, are composed in longhand on a yellow legal pad, because that’s what sane people do.
“Demolition” is director Jean-Marc Vallée’s follow-up to “Wild” and, before that, “Dallas Buyer’s Club,” each of which scored Oscar nominations for their lead actors’ portrayals of characters going through one sort of existential crisis or another. Davis fits that mold, but it’s worth noting that “Demolition” is being released in the spring rather than being held back for an Oscar-bait slot in the fall. It’s not that Gyllenhaal’s performance as this tormented widower is bad—it’s actually quite committed and intense. But it’s harder for him to elicit the level of empathetic identification that Reese Witherspoon or Matthew McConaughey can.
Gyllenhaal almost always seems uncomfortable in his own skin, at least since he morphed from the gangly, Goth-ish teen of “Donnie Darko” into the thick-necked slab of beefcake he is today. He still has little boy eyes, though—wounded and hollow, like an abused puppy. It’s that combination of innocent, haunted, and dangerous that produces his best work, including 2013’s “Enemy” from Vallee’s fellow French-Canadian filmmaker, Denis Villeneuve.
The same ambiguity animates his performance in “Demolition,” as Davis eventually develops a relationship with that customer service rep (Naomi Watts, in dressed-down slumming mode) as well as her sexually confused, possibly disturbed teenaged son (Judah Lewis). He also makes good on the title’s promise, becoming obsessed with disassembling stuff like his leaky refrigerator or, say, a squeaky bathroom stall at the office. Sledgehammers and bulldozers make a later appearance. All the while, you’re kept guessing about what’s really going on in the guy’s head.
The screenplay, by relative newcomer Bryan Sipe (not the old Cleveland Browns quarterback Brian Sipe), winds up having a fairly conventional shape, but takes some interesting detours on its way to a familiar-feeling catharsis. Still, it’s Gyllenhaal who almost single-handedly makes it watchable. He’s quietly become simultaneously one of the most dependable and most risk-taking actors in Hollywood. His filmography over the last five years has far more hits, quality-wise at least, than misses, and “Demolition” keeps the streak going.
Rated R, 101 minutes, Grade: B
(“Demolition” opens Thursday, April 7 at multiple Portland-area theaters.)