Demolition: A Jake Gyllenhaal gem

Moviegoers deserve more films like Jake Gyllenhaal’s latest, Demolition. A movie made for the sake of good storytelling and not just to make a buck.

Unlike Batman v. Superman (which cost $275 million to make), Demolition probably cost less than $30 million to produce. This movie was made for the soul and asks a lot of uncomfortable, yet brutal questions. It is familiar looking, yet different when you start to turn the pages during its 100 minute running time.

Fox Searchlight Pictures

Director Jean-Marc Vallee doesn’t mess around when he picks up a camera these days. He directed Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club, where both actors walked home with Oscars. He directed Reese Witherspoon in Wild, where she scored a Best Actress nomination and career renewal. Gyllenhaal’s career didn’t need saving, but he is a marvel here as Davis Mitchell, a man who changes in ways you wouldn’t imagine after his wife dies in a car accident. 

Mitchell has been a machine for the majority of his life, waking up early to run and crunching the numbers at an investment firm in New York City by day, before becoming robotic at night. He is the kind of guy who evades drama and skips emotion. When he is asked about his late wife, he says that he didn’t really know who she really was and that he is trying to miss her. It’s like he is reading facts about her off a cue card.

Davis doesn’t grieve like a normal widower would. He also doesn’t hold everything in like a tornado of sadness. He is a storm of untapped enjoyment and Gyllenhaal doesn’t overplay the script or try to climb out of the screen and onto your seat. He moves at his own pace, letting a facial expression speak a page instead of trying to ramble on and on.

His scenes with Chris Cooper (playing his father-in-law and boss Phil) are extremely well done. These two are pros at trading dialog. Back in 1999, Gyllenhaal’s career launched with October Sky, where Cooper played his dad and they were great together. Here, it’s like they haven’t skipped a beat, but the waves are different. Phil wants to grieve and Davis won’t, so a wall forms between them. Along the way, Davis befriends a vending machine rep (Naomi Watts) and connects with her rebellious teenage son Chris (Judah Lewis).

There’s also a lot of demolition involved, as the title gives away. When you tell someone they should heal by taking things apart piece by piece, people like Davis take it in the literal sense. He demolishes kitchens, clocks, bathroom stalls and cappuccino makers, in order to see how they are built or what makes them tick. Davis needs help, but it can’t come via a shrink or doctor. He just needs to grieve and his soul won’t let him and his heart doesn’t have a map to find out where he can begin.

I wanted to get to know Davis. That’s how well Gyllenhaal played him. He was a real guy to me for two hours.

Vallee’s films are bare bone productions and that’s the right way to be with this kind of story. No filters on the actor’s faces and everything bright yellow or decaying gray. There’s no flash needed with a camera when a script like Bryan Sipe’s carries this much juice and potential for the cast.

The best thing about Demolition is that it’s an honest film that doesn’t take any shortcuts. There’s no easy romances plopped down inside this story or comfortable conclusions. Everything is left open ended like real life. Hope without an ending. Does Davis find his way? Yes and no. Like most of us, he is a work in progress. The story goes in different directions and doesn’t sweep you off your feet. It does punch you in the gut a few times. Prepare for something different.

If science fiction isn’t your cup of tea and you are tired of superheroes having arguments, take some time for Demolition. You’ll laugh, cry and feel something when you leave the theater. Gyllenhaal and Vallee aim for the soul and hit.

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