Sometimes you have to tear everything apart before you can start living again. At least that seems to be part of the message of Demolitionsomething of a dramedy that benefits enormously from some great and risky work from Jake Gyllenhaal in the central role of Davis Mitchell, a successful self-centered investment banker whose life takes a U-turn when he and his wife are in a major car crash. She dies, he emerges unscathed physically but in deep emotional trouble in every other way, a man who compresses his true feelings, discovering too late how much was left unsaid.

pete hammond review badgeThe film opened last fall’s Toronto Film Festival but, though certainly award-worthy for Gyllenhaal’s lead performance, was always designed by Fox Searchlight to open in April. As I say in my video review above, it is nice a have a picture of this caliber from director Jean-Marc Vallee (Dallas Buyers Club, Wild) out in the spring instead of the overcrowded fall — usually the home for these kinds of adult-oriented movies. There can be no doubt this is a performance-driven film, and the one that drives it is Gyllenhaal, who has been delivering impressive work of late in such varied projects as Nightcrawler and Southpaw.

As a man trying to deal with his wife’s sudden death in most unusual ways, Gyllenhaal takes a tricky role and makes it work, even if at times his actions seem odd and difficult to comprehend. The film is about dealing with grief and loss, and Mitchell clearly is not prepared for either. At the hospital right after he loses his wife, he battles with a vending machine over an undelivered item and sets out to write a long, very personal letter demanding a refund to the vending machine company in which he also tells his own story. It’s an effective narrative device that fills in much of the blanks of his life without being cloying.

On the other end of what becomes a series of letters, and then phone calls, is Karen (Naomi Watts), a customer service rep who shows empathy and eventually strikes up a friendship with David that soon reveals her own problems as a single mom, dealing with a dull boyfriend while bringing up a teen son Chris (Judah Lewis) going through his own growing pains. Davis also has to contend with a father-in-law, Phil (Chris Cooper), who has a hard time understanding why he is acting the way he is and can’t seem to grieve for his daughter like he is. Complicating matters is the fact that Davis also works for Phil and has been falling down on the job. Eventually the film’s title comes into play when, with the help of young Chris, he takes a sledgehammer to his well-appointed home, and to the life he lived.

Gyllenhaal is simply superb in every way, again proving he is one of the smartest actors around in terms of finding challenging material and then swinging for the fences. Watts is nicely low key and complements him well, while Cooper is still one of the most reliable performers there is. Lewis, in his feature film debut, is definitely one to watch  as he poignantly navigates the role of a young man trying to define himself against unimaginable peer pressure. The script by Bryan Sipe resists the temptation to provide easy answers for any of these characters. If at one point it nearly falls prey to melodrama, it ultimately heads in unexpected directions. Don’t expect a pat ending either; this is the stuff of life.

Vallee uses fluid camerawork and editing to give the movie a distinct visual  style and, as usual, gets superlative work from all involved. He produces with Lianne Halfon, Trent Luckinbill, Molly Smith, Russ Smith and Sidney Kimmel. Fox Searchlight releases it April 8.

Do you plan to see Demolition? Let us know what you think.