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Jake Gyllenhaal makes a good sociopath. From Donnie Darko to Nightcrawler, the brooding movie star specializes in characters who are emotionally detached, even dangerously unhinged. On paper, those qualities would make him a good fit for tales of suppressed grief, like Demolition. In the new film, Gyllenhaal plays Davis, an alpha-male investment banker whose wife is killed in a car crash in the opening scenes. He survives but struggles to process the aftermath. Unable to share his grief with his in-laws (Chris Cooper and Polly Draper), he ultimately looks for salvation in a new relationship with an older woman.
If the plot sounds familiar, you might be thinking of 2002’s Moonlight Mile, which features the actor in a startlingly similar role. Both films, unfortunately, are severely hampered by the shallow performances at its center. Gyllenhaal is a great sociopath, but he has yet to play a convincingly empathetic human. This is a film that needs one.
If Fight Club and Ordinary People had a baby, it would be like Demolition—but better. The film by Jean-Marc Vallee lacks the satirical edge of the former and the emotional gravitas of the latter, instead opting for a safe, scattered middle ground. Davis is a prototype of the American male, so he can’t access his grief after his wife’s death. Instead, he begins committing acts of public destruction. At first, it’s only social anarchy; he drops pop culture non-sequiturs into business meetings (gasp!) and writes long, confessional complaint letters to a customer service rep (Naomi Watts), with whom he eventually starts an intimate but platonic relationship. Pretty soon, he starts wreaking havoc on furniture and household items, dismantling light fixtures at work and his refrigerator at home. By the third act, he is demolishing his house with a bulldozer. “Somehow, everything has become a metaphor,” Davis tells us in voice-over, but we’ve already figured that out.
It’s all skillfully executed, and at times the film finds a sharp, darkly comedic tone. Yet something about it just feels ill-conceived, as if the filmmakers couldn’t quite figure out their take on the material. Is it a personal story of grief? If so, it needs a more thorough performance at its center. An allegory about the trappings of consumerism? Nope, it fetishizes anarchy more than explores it. A white-collar rebellion fantasy? Perhaps, but that’s not enough to hang an entire movie on.
The script by Bryan Sipe never explicitly frames Davis’s aggression as a rebellion against consumerist society, but it’s hard to read it otherwise. Maybe this is due to Gyllenhaal’s superficial performance; when the viewer has nothing to emotionally grasp, the mind tends to wander. We never get under the skin of Davis, or learn who he was before this all happened to him, and Gyllenhaal seems more interested in looking cool than filling in the gaps with nuance. It’s a common problem with characters who are detached; it’s too easy for the film to feel detached, as well. You can offset that vacancy with style or genre, like Donnie Darko, but Demolition fashions itself as a grief drama, and drama can’t exist without emotionally-defined characters.
The hollowness that courses through the film may be centralized in Gyllenhaal’s performance, but it also rears its head in the severely underwritten female lead. Watts’s talents are entirely wasted on a character who gets no backstory of her own. She invites Davis into the home she shares with her rebellious adolescent son, but why? Where is her husband? How did she end up here? These questions don’t have to be answered in every film, but this one unfortunately inspires them because there is so little else of substance going on. In the end, all Demolition really has to offer is a case of bitter irony. It’s a film about a character who “wants to see inside of things,” but never let us in either.
Demolition opens today at Landmark’s E Street Cinema and AMC Loews Georgetown 14.