‘Demolition’: TIFF Review

Jake Gyllenhaal tears it up in this dynamically offbeat dramedy.

Jean-Marc Vallee (‘The Dallas Buyers Club’) kicks off Toronto with Jake Gyllenhaal and Naomi Watts.

After a series of punishing lead roles where he embodied the personae of a masochistic boxer (Southpaw), a Travis Bickle-style newshound (Nightcrawler) and a pair of tormented dopplegangers (Enemy), Jake Gyllenhaal changes gears for Demolition – a film that once again puts his character through the wringer, though in ways that are offbeat, exuberant and occasionally quite hilarious.

Those three terms best describe this lively new dramedy from Quebecois director Jean-Marc Vallee, which tells the story of a Wall Street financier whose wife dies in a car accident, leaving him to pick up – or in this case, tear apart – the pieces of a life that never really felt like his own. It’s a unique take on what could otherwise be a morbidly depressing tale of loss and grief, dishing out tons of energy and spats of devilish humor, though not always fitting its numerous parts into a succinct whole – especially during a home stretch that winds up turning its back on the anti-conformism that preceded it, resulting in a rocky but highly enjoyable ride.

Premiering as the opening night selection for the Toronto Film Festival’s 40th edition, Demolition will not hit U.S. theaters until next spring, where Fox Searchlight will need to find savvy ways to market such an eclectic effort to mainstream audiences. But with Gyllenhaal once again delivering an all-consuming performance, backed by a somewhat underused Naomi Watts and the terrific young newcomer Judah Lewis, the film could find favor among those who savor the quirkier side of Hollywood in works ranging from Punch-Drunk Love to Silver Linings Playbook.

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In his last two movies, The Dallas Buyers Club and Wild, Vallee had his lead characters go through trials by fire in order to achieve a certain peace with themselves. That’s once again the modus operandi here, although the unorthodox methods of screenwriter Bryan Sipe tackle questions of mourning, surviving and healing from some highly unusual angles: Instead of focusing on a man who takes his sorrow out on himself or others, the widower at the center of Demolition takes it out on lots of designer furniture, high-tech appliances and eventually, his entire house.

When we first meet hotshot investor Davis (Gyllenhaal), his wife Julia (Heather Lind) has just died and all he can think about is the packet of M&M’s that got stuck in the hospital vending machine. Freudian psychologists would call such a reaction “displacement,” and Davis will spend a better part of the movie displacing all emotions through some highly odd behavior, writing a series of confessional refund letters to the vending machine company, while following the advice of his father-in-law (Chris Cooper) all-too literally when the latter suggests that Davis take his life apart “piece by piece” in order to rebuild it without Julia.

This prompts Davis to pick up a box of tools and pull apart anything that bugs him: a leaky refrigerator, a creaky bathroom door or an office computer that keeps freezing. Such actions are complemented by his propensity to be brutally honest with those around him, admitting to a stranger on the Metro-North train that he never loved his wife, while confiding first by pen, and then in person, to Karen (Watts), the customer service representative he’d been writing steadily to since Julia’s death, and with whom he strikes up a relationship grounded in mutual loneliness and weirdness.

Using jumpcuts, flashbacks and lots of rapid sight gags – elegantly framed by regular cinematographer Yves Belanger – to keep a dynamic tone throughout these early sections, Vallee contrasts Davis’s off-kilter attitude and loopy hijinks with the hard realities he refuses to face, revealing a man who seems incapable of any sort of empathy. He’s not exactly a sociopath, but rather someone who goes to extremes in order to avoid the dark pit of his existence, denying others – especially his grieving in-laws – what they most expect: to see him crushed by the loss of his spouse.

As farfetched as that sounds, Gyllenhaal makes it all feel compellingly real, turning Davis into a man who does some wild and questionable things throughout the movie, but also makes us laugh at the same time: One memorable sequence has him walking onto a construction site and offering to sledgehammer a house free of charge, while another has him breaking out into spontaneous dance on the streets of Manhattan.

Such moments seem to come out of nowhere, yet they’re welcome all the same, and it’s unfortunate that the filmmakers wind up pulling a 180 in the last act, attempting to redeem Davis in ways that feel contrived and not necessarily believable. Perhaps, after films like Enemy and Nightcrawler, we’ve come to expect Gyllenhaal to play guys who slide off the deep end and never come back, but Vallee doesn’t go that far.

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On the other hand, he does bring us a thrilling new character in the form of Karen’s 12-year-old son, Chris (Lewis) – a kid whose rebellious attitude makes him the perfect sidekick to the reckless Davis, and they wind up forming a friendship over two of the most bizarre and authentic bonding scenes in recent memory: one involving a frank discussion of homosexuality, the other live ammunition and a bullet-proof vest.

This is Lewis’s first feature outside a TV movie, but he’s spot-on as a tweenager who’s both cocky and utterly vulnerable. Like Davis, Chris is a highly flawed character, and that’s what makes him so endearing, even if Vallee ultimately tries too hard to make us feel bad for him. He’s best when he’s just being a badass, and the same goes for Davis and the whole film. No need to tie up loose bits, pick up the pieces and have it all make sense in the end. Just demolish.


Production companies: Mr. Mudd, Black Label Media, SKE
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Naomi Watts, Chris Cooper, Judah Lewis, Heather Lind
Director: Jean-Marc Vallee
Screenwriter: Bryan Sipe
Producers: Lianne Halfon, Russ Smith, Molly Smith, Trent Luckinbill, Sidney Kimmel, Jean-Marc Vallee
Executive producers: Thad Luckinbill, Ellen H. Schwartz, Carla Hacken, Bruce Toll, Nathan Ross, John Malkovich, Jason Reitman, Helen Estabrook
Director of photography: Yves Belanger
Art director: Javiera Vardas
Costume designer: Leah Katznelson
Editor: Jay M. Glen
Casting directors: Suzanne Smith Crowley, Jessica Kelly
International sales: Sierra/Affinity

Rated R, 101 minutes