One of these days Jake Gyllenhaal will get his due. Unquestionably one of the greatest actors at work today, he’s also, alas, easily the most underrated. After successfully putting 2010’s Prince of Persia: Sands of Time behind him, he’s been on a non-stop streak rock-solid performances, from Source Code to End of Watchto Prisoners to Nightcrawler to Southpaw. His latest is Demolition, and though the film itself doesn’t equal Gyllenhaal’s stellar performance, maybe it’s enough to finally get Hollywood to notice this guy.
Eh, who am I kidding?
Gyllenhaal stars as Davis Mitchell, a wealthy investment banker in his father-in-law’s New York firm. On the ride home from work one day, he and his wife Julia (Heather Lind) are in a car crash– she dies instantly, but Davis doesn’t get a scratch.
When he tries to get a snack out of the hospital’s vending machine, the candy gets stuck, prompting the hollow-eyed Davis to write a letter to the vending company. The letter becomes cathartic for Davis, as he spills the entire story of his life and Julia’s death into it. One letter becomes two, and before long, Davis is writing tell-alls to the company almost daily. Finally, customer service rep Karen (Naomi Watts) gets in touch with Davis, and the two form an unlikely bond.
Davis realizes he needs to take a long, hard look at his life before he can start moving on– and that it should start with the destruction of his former life… his job, his friendships, and even his house.
Gyllenhaal gives a perfectly nuanced performance, shuttling between an incoherent daze and a determined mission to take things apart. Literally. He starts with his fridge before moving on to a bathroom stall, his computer, and then a cappuccino machine. At the same time, he’s trying to rebuild his life, and that begins with his (platonic) new friend Karen. Gyllenhaal goes all-in, playing Davis as the ultimate broken man without resorting to cliches or hamming it up.
Director Jean-Marc Vallée (WIld, Dallas Buyers Club) isn’t the problem, either. His no-frills style fits the subject matter perfectly, letting us instead focus on the people and their problems… which brings us to the screenplay by Bryan Sipe (The Choice).
Though it’s full of smart moments and brilliant dialogue, the parts don’t add up to a worthwhile whole. We get no sense of Davis’s personality pre-crash, so there’s no real way for us to gauge his transformation, and the lack of a concrete, forward-moving plot also hampers the festivities considerably. Sipe also seems to be trying to cram in every trope imaginable to try to stir the pot, from drugs to gay-bashing to even a syrupy sweet finale.
It’s one thing to just sit and enjoy brilliant direction and yet another top-shelf Gyllenhaal performance, but without a good story, it all seems like a bit of a waste– perhaps something that should be taken apart and then rebuilt.