You have to feel sorry for Jake Gyllenhaal. For every Nightcrawler, there’s a Southpaw; for each Enemy or Prisoners, there’s an Accidental Love. But despite his yin-yang effect with the movies he stars in, the actor has consistently been the best thing about them; ‘powerhouse’ is the perfect terminology to describe his fierceness and presence, and his latest performance in Demolition is no different. Sadly, the movie starts with a bang, winds its way down to a muddied whimper, before settling on a feeble wheezing noise until the credits roll.
Gyllenhaal plays Davis, a man who loses his wife to a car accident less than five minutes in. The ensuing detachment he experiences from the tragedy starts to manifest itself as a curious hobby; taking things apart, such as his office computer or a creaky bathroom stall, and putting them together again in order to see how they work. This bizarre new affectation bewilders those around him, especially his grieving father-in-law (a wonderfully glazy-eyed Chris Cooper), but when he discovers a kindred spirit in Naomi Watt’s Karen, he discovers that life holds beautiful mysteries under its hollow surface. Or something like that; it’s never entirely certain what Demolition is aiming for, as its plot threads pulse with apparent meaning but never accomplish the feat of having you remember them when you leave. You can actually pin-point the moment Demolition begins to cave in on itself, and sadly it’s when Watts’ character shows up, who adds nothing to the story but a famous face. Her entire plotline is representative of the numerous ways in which the movie strains for something just out of its reach, where a far less convoluted attack on story would have given the picture a sharper edge. The tone, of which there is little to begin with in the first place, is twisted hard-left into mystery-thriller territory; cigarette-hushed phone calls in the middle of the night lead Davis down an unaccountably noirish path, when something not quite so jarringly genre-specific would have ushered Watts into the picture as a welcome breath of fresh air to the choking sombreness. But simply, Demolition would function better if its main character was left to do just that – demolition. Because what’s more cathartic than tearing everything apart in order to rebuild?
Despite its massive inconsistencies when it comes to plot, it does feature two wondrous things: the aforementioned Gyllenhaal, and a brilliant breakout from child star Judah Lewis. It’s tough to make a teenage performance interesting, let alone anything other than annoying, but Lewis nails it, delivering to us a beautifully detailed character who is equal parts progressive and heartbreaking, and certainly something we need to see more of on the big screen.
But like we said, thank God for Gyllenhaal; having blossomed into a true actor’s actor, a beast who peacocks his vibrant psychological spots and physically imposing stripes on a whim, he is almost the sole reason to recommend Demolition at all. But for the film itself? We’d like to take it apart, and put it back together again – and do it right the second time.