Actor Jake Gyllenhaal has recently proved himself more than capable of carrying a film on his alternately emaciated (Nightcrawler) or buffed-up (Southpaw) shoulders. In Jean-Marc Vallée’s Demolition (2015) they’re characteristically broad and Gyllenhaal’s performance is one of his finest to date; further proof of his ever-growing and impressively hirsute acting chops. Vallée’s return to Toronto is a triumph at the level of Dallas Buyers Club (2013), following the slight hiccup of last year’s Wild (2014). The French-Canadian certainly turns the quirk-o-meter up to eleven here with a tale that explores the effects of grief through a character unable to shed a tear under even the most dire of circumstances.
Gyllenhaal stars as Davis Mitchell, a successful but unfulfilled stock broker who loses a wife he is neither able nor seemingly willing to mourn. Thus, he deconstructs his life and marriage in a manner befitting the film’s title to work out how to move forward. To describe his aloofness as apathetic would be the grossest of understatements, the narrative as much about his quest to feel anything as it’s an exploration of the grieving process. The screenplay, by New Jersey native Bryan Sipe, is heavy-handed on the metaphors but the writer is not afraid to include the occasional tongue-in-cheek jibe. A series of complaint letters to a vending machine company – the vehicle Davis uses to express dissatisfactory service as well as vent about personal strife – includes one such allusion to cold and warm fronts meeting: “Too much,” he says. Indeed, Mr. Sipe.
Accepting the odd relationship that develops between new pen pal, customer service rep Karen (Naomi Watts) and Davis takes a bit of a leap of faith but the fact it remains platonic is refreshing and avoids unnecessary complications for two people seeking to feed off and learn from one another. It is, however, Karen’s son, Chris – played with remarkable maturity by newcomer Judah Lewis – who is Davis’ partner-in-crime when it comes to swinging the wrecking ball to the vestiges of his former life. A child out of time and out of place, he is a troubled and troublesome teenager struggling to find himself. Discovering a much needed confidant in Davis, a conversation on sexuality between the two in a hardware store is one of the film’s many highlights. His leopard skin jacket, make-up and earring would have suited a teenager in the 1970s and it’s thanks to his character that the film has such a killer soundtrack. Crazy On You by Heart will never be the same again. Elsewhere the script is economical, uproariously funny and punchy, finishing with devastating twists and turns. Vallée’s direction is equally streamlined; known as an actor’s director, he elicits strong performances all-round.
It’s perhaps odd that Fox Searchlight have put off a commercial release until April, post awards season given the talent on show. That said, dreamy, slow-motion flashbacks and recollections of memories are a little contrived and other than recognising her beauty, it’s difficult to relate to Julia (Heather Lind). We are so firmly aligned with Davis’ point of view that it’s hard to get weepy, even for an unusually dewy-eyed Chris Cooper; although one speech on what it means for a father to lose his daughter gives a solid tug on the heartstrings. In the opening minutes of Demolition, Davis asks his soon to be ex-wife to turn down the soft classical music playing on their commute. He will later rock out through foot traffic at Grand Central to the methodical drive of Mr. Big by Free. Who needs therapy when you’ve got psychedelic rock, a sledgehammer and some time off work? It might not please all tastes but Vallée’s latest is an intriguing, confusing, uplifting, amusing, depressing jumble that hits just the right note.
The Toronto International Film Festival takes place from 10-20 September 2015. For more coverage, follow this link.