Following back-to-back successes with “Dallas Buyers Club” and “Wild,” director Jean-Marc Vallée hits another cinematic homerun with “Demolition,” now in select theaters.
Jake Gyllenhaal beguiles audiences with one of his most compelling performances, taking what could have been a very ordinary performance and elevating it to an Oscar-nomination worthy effort.
Gyllenhaal stars as Davis, a man struggling to cope with the death of his wife following a tragic car accident that somehow leaves him unharmed. In an attempt to process his thoughts, he continuously writes letters to the customer service department of an area vending machine company.
His performance is incredibly refreshing given his recent loud, brash work in both “Nightcrawler” and “Southpaw” and Gyllenhaal proves once again he can play subtle, natural characters as well as the bombastic, in-your-face ones.
“Demolition” is also supported by a terrific secondary cast led by veteran character actor Chris Cooper, who reminds audiences once again that he’s one of the best performers with gravitas in the business. As Davis’ father-in-law Phil, the quiet resentment Cooper builds within his character for Davis is remarkably refined, understated and quite simply, beautiful to watch evolve on screen.
Davis’ constant letter writing puts him in contact with a curious customer service representative slash single mother in Naomi Watts, who picks her moments to shine while keeping Gyllenhaal in the forefront.
Like most everything else in “Demolition,” the potential romance between the two leads is slow burning, just on the edge of being too tedious. The quirkiness of both characters, expertly played by Watts and Gyllenhaal, keeps the romance interesting, however.
The film also features a terrific fresh face in Judah Lewis, who plays Watts’ rebellious loner son Chris. In his biggest role to date, the 14-year-old Lewis astonishes as a young man himself struggling with identity and relationship issues. The natural bonds Lewis is able to establish with Gyllenhaal in such small screen time together is perhaps the single best relationship between characters in the entire film, a credit to both actors.
There’s a wonderful metaphor within “Demolition” that Davis exposes himself to the world emotionally by literally taking his world apart piece by piece.
Though that’s most glaringly done during an iconic scene in which Davis and Chris destroy Davis’ home with sledgehammers and a bulldozer, the internal deconstruction of Davis is readily evident in Gyllenhaal’s spectacular performance, one of the finest of his career.
Conceptually, Bryan Sipe’s screenplay works better than in its actual execution on the written page, though the wonderful cast of “Demolition” bring the absolute most out of a slightly hindered script.
What ultimately appears on screen is a quirky companion piece to David O. Russell’s “Silver Linings Playbook,” but only if the romantic dramedy went in a decidedly darker direction.
“Demolition” works as a film thanks in large part to another directorial masterpiece from Vallée, who allows slightly muted performances from his leads to filter their way throughout the material in such an honest way.
There’s a version of this film that could have been made from another director with an actor like Robert Downey Jr. or Bradley Cooper that would have turned “Demolition” into an emotional, rage-filled atomic bomb of a film where pain and loss are hammered home with brutal force. Vallée rightly opts for the subtle and draws a career-defining performance from Gyllenhaal.
Visually, “Demolition” has its moments of brilliance especially in its closing moments. The film’s several musical montages are another cinematic highlight, seeing Gyllenhaal dance through the streets of New York City to Free’s “Mr. Big” or destroy his home to Heart’s iconic “Crazy on You.”
While not for everyone, “Demolition” serves as another fantastic example of small, almost independent level filmmaking focused more on the characters themselves than the actions they take. Moviegoers who appreciate nuance in film won’t be disappointed.