Jake Gyllenhaal has been on a TREMENDOUS run these last few years, throwing down ace performance after ace performance, including a Hall of Fame-level Cinematic Weirdo in Nightcrawler’s Lou Bloom. In Jean-Marc Vallee’s Demolition he offers another take on the Cinematic Weirdo, this time starring as Davis, a repressed, buttoned-up financier whose life implodes after his wife dies. Demolition is a little messier than Vallee’s last two films, Wild and Dallas Buyers Club, but it comes by its emotions more honestly, and though it does wander a bit through the narrative, Jake G’s performance carries the whole thing, with an unexpected late-in-the-game assist by Judah Lewis, which puts it more in line with an earlier Vallee film, The Young Victoria, than his more recent works in the Blatant Award Bait genre.
At first Demolition seems like your standard grief narrative, as Davis goes through the motions following his wife’s death. He didn’t know her, she was probably too good for him, yadda yadda. But as Gyllenhaal starts letting out Davis’s emotions in bouts of property destruction, the film picks up steam. Davis is less overtly odd than Lou Bloom, but only because he’s perfected going through the motions, and Gyllenhaal finds new ways to express weirdness. At this point, “being weird on screen” is practically an art form for him, and Davis is his most likeable weirdo to date, a slightly unnerving mix of control and awkward vulnerability. Once widowed and aware that he isn’t feeling the things people think he should be feeling, Davis starts a campaign of honesty that, refreshingly, isn’t played for yuks.
But there is a lot of humor in Demolition. For the first time, and even including Gyllenhaal’s work with Denis Villeneuve, it feels like the director is fully matching his commitment to weird. Editing plays a big role in bringing out the funny touches in Demolition, but it also handles the more dramatic elements as well, too, not playing any one of several instances for shock but instead choosing to underplay those elements and instead focus on the human aftermath. As Davis unravels, Vallee plays with perspective, editing, and music cues to keep up with Gyllenhaal’s intensity, and it all works. The movie is a little messy, as it meanders along with Davis’s fits and starts, but if you’re willing to just roll with it, the reward is a very satisfying emotional arc.
Naomi Watts co-stars as Karen, a woman with whom Davis forms an unlikely bond thanks to over-sharing customer service letters he writes, and the script, from Bryan Snipe, avoids the more clichéd version of that story by not pairing them off romantically. I suppose it’s possible to read their relationship that way if you want to, or at least extrapolate that future, but within the film itself it doesn’t go there. Instead Demolition pairs Davis with Karen’s teenaged son, Chris (Lewis). It’s a delightful relationship with good give and take between the characters, and Lewis is outstanding as Chris. He’s the big surprise of the film, upstaging Watts and Chris Cooper, also in a supporting role, and almost taking scenes from Gyllenhaal, too.
Almost—but not quite, because Demolition does remain firmly in Jake G’s control. He’s a generous actor—which is part of why he has yet to be nominated, because he keeps making everyone around him look so damn good—so he will let someone else have their moment in a scene, but it always comes back to him as the anchor. It’s not even the script doing that, because the roles written for Cooper, Lewis, and Watts are GREAT and they are great in those roles, but Jake G is really in his groove playing these weirdos and this time out it feels like he’s not actually trying to get a nomination out of it. Of course, it’s when you’re not trying that everything happens, so watch, this will be the time he does manage to pull a nomination. Starting to feel overdue, if you ask me.