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SXSW Review: Jake Gyllenhaal Channels Palahniuk In Dark ‘Demolition’

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“Demolition” is a strange beast. Its simple premise of an affluent investment banker struggling to cope in the wake of his wife’s death suggests it might be the kind of prestige pic that guns hard for Oscar gold. It does have a generous helping of Academy Award nominees, including director Jean-Marc Vallee (“Dallas Buyers Club”), Jake Gyllenhaal (“Brokeback Mountain”), Naomi Watts (“21 Grams”) and Oscar-winner Chris Cooper (“Adaptation”). However, as its title suggests, our hero finds salvation not through putting his life back together, but by methodically ripping it apart. Now that could be the stuff of a quirky Nancy Meyers comedy, where the wrecked widower finds a new love and a new lease on life to the jaunting tunes of Peter Gabriel’s “Solsbury Hill.” Instead, “Demolition” plays more like a lost Chuck Palahniuk adaptation, darkly comedic, dangerous, and edged with pain.

Perhaps “Demolition”s dark allure should come as no surprise. From “Zodiac” to “End of Watch,” “Nightcrawler” to “Southpaw,” Gyllenhaal has been building a fascinating filmography, cementing a reputation as one of the greatest actors of a generation. Here he sheds his roguish grins and easy charm to step into the work boots of Davis Mitchell, whose comfortable though cold upper class life is shattered when he survives a car wreck that kills his young wife. While her parents and his weep, Davis is puzzled to discover he feels nothing.

In a response that feels somehow both preposterous and understandable, he channels his thoughts into a complaint letter. Not to the car company whose design couldn’t save his wife, or the hospital where she died. Davis pours his jumbled heart out to the complaints department of the vending machine that failed to dispense him Peanut M&Ms in the ICU waiting room. With letter after letter, he shares with some anonymous person his inner most thoughts, random tendrils of wondering about his life and the lives of others. In an airport rant, he ponders about the countless carry-on bags, “What can these people not do without for four days in Buffalo?”

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Through this epistle device, screenwriter Bryan Sipe laces a bittersweet tone punctuated with gallows humor that makes Davis a compelling figure. But it’s Gyllenhaal who makes him flesh. His voiceover is soft, thoughtful and almost disturbingly unaffected as he recounts the road of unhappy marriage that led haphazardly to that day. And this odd melody plays over his new zeal for making sense of broken things by taking them apart, be they his fridge, the bathroom stalls at his office, or the entire first floor of his modern luxury home. Davis swaps his tailored suits for workman’s boots, carpenter’s khakis, and a sledgehammer. But keeping the dress shirts and suspenders, he is still an outsider, stumbling into a construction crew to howl with joy as he smashes and demolishes.

Through his destruction, Davis rejects society’s status symbols (white-collar work, fancy home, lovely wife), feeling like a Palahniuk protagonist through and through. And as is the case in “Fight Club,” “Rant” and “Lullaby,” his journey would not be complete without finding a fellow freak. Enter Watts as the customer service rep haunted by Davis’ letters that won’t stop coming, won’t stop pouring out his strange sad story. An unprofessional phone call leads to an aborted meet-up to a chance encounter to friendly stalking. Steadily a bond is formed. He’s welcomed into her home, her life and her son’s (a heartbreaking Judah Lewis). And together this impeccable cast builds a story of strange and surreal salvation.

Offering a mix of melancholy and hope, misanthropy and humanity, recklessness and thoughtfulness, “Demolition” plays like the best of Palahniuk. And like the subversive author’s greatest lines, “Demolition” rips its humor from situations that are taboo and socially awkward but emotionally rich. You’ll bark with the kind of laughter that makes you throw your hand over you mouth in blushing surprise, and then wonder if it’s okay to laugh at such a dark thing. And it is okay. Because we all feel demolished sometimes. With its brilliant performances and risky humor, “Demolition” urges audiences to let their freak flags fly and keep their ragged heart rambling.

“Demolition” arrives in theaters April 8 following its U.S. premiere at SXSW March 12.

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