Few actors have as much chameleon-like skill as Jake Gyllenhaal. He can play a man coming to terms with his sexuality, as seen in “Brokeback Mountain,” or a magical charmer, as seen in “Love & Other Drugs.” He took on coyote-like characteristics for his creepy role in “Nightcrawler.”
His latest acting challenge has come in the form of “Demolition,” where he’s required to reveal only tiny glimpses of what his character is feeling, often through obtuse ways. It takes longer to see the true emotional makeup of the character, but Gyllenhaal finally reaches a distinct point.
Gyllenhaal plays Davis Mitchell, a successful investment banker whose wife is killed in a car accident. His initial lack of reaction worries his father-in-law/boss (Chris Cooper). Those concerns grow as Mitchell slowly begins to reveal the pain and grief that he’s so desperately trying to hide. The first sign is Mitchell’s new obsession with taking things apart.
The most interesting manifestation of his emotions comes through a series of letters sent to a vending machine company. Woven into the complaints about the malfunction of a machine are some insights into what Mitchell is feeling. Karen (Naomi Watts), the customer service representative for the company, spots the emotional confessions and begins to share her own.
This leads to an unorthodox relationship between the pair, which also includes her teenage son, Chris (Judah Lewis), who is struggling with his own issues. They become an odd three-legged support group where none of the parts are that spiritually strong.
Director Jean-Marc Vallee has structured the film so that Gyllenhaal doesn’t get to immediately embrace the strong emotional characteristics of his character. It’s a slow churn for Mitchell, a man with so much self-control he almost seems emotionally disconnected from his wife’s death.
As Vallee allows Gyllenhaal to unleash the dark emotions buried in his character’s soul, the performance becomes more fascinating. It’s like watching a volcano go from a tiny hill to a destructive mountain.
Few actors can match Gyllenhaal when it comes to a performance that grows to such an explosive level, but Watts does.
Just like Gyllenhaal’s character, Watts starts out with Karen appearing as an emotionally solid figure. But she too slowly reveals the real turmoil going on inside in a methodical manner. The difference is that while Gyllenhaal is allowed to let his character be revealed in a very physical manner, most of what Watts does is detailed in a quieter manner.
The end result for both is a performance that reflects and supports the other.
The performances are weakened by Bryan Sipe’s script, which at times becomes far too literal. Watching Gyllenhaal destroy the house where he and his wife lived is too on the mark when it comes to how Mitchell is trying to restart his life. Of course the film’s title is anything but subtle.
And the contrived and corny ending is so overly sweet it would have been a mistake even in a Katherine Heigl romantic comedy. The movie’s dark heart deserved a much more biting and abrasive ending.
Even in that schmaltzy final scene, Gyllenhaal continues to show why even with a script that stumbles on numerous occasions, he has the skill to grab an audience by the throat and not let go. Because his method changes from film to film, he’s a pleasure to watch even when the overall project suffers from some major writing miscues.
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Naomi Watts, Chris Cooper, Heather Lind
Director: Jean-Marc Vallee
Rated R (drug use, language, disturbing behavior)
Opens: Friday, April 8