Death has a script. In the movies, we expect to see black suits, tossed roses, and maybe one mourner so upset they leap into the grave. Reality isn't much different — until someone you love dies, and suddenly the script becomes a blank page.
Grief defies expectations. At the funeral, you might not cry. Six months later, a cell phone commercial could suddenly make you sob. The heart's refusal to take direction adds pain and guilt. God, I can't even grieve right.
Jean-Marc Vallée's Demolition is about healing without a blueprint. After financial investor Davis (Jake Gyllenhaal) loses his wife Julia (Heather Lind) in a car crash, he ditches the funeral reception to write a four-page complaint letter to a hospital vending machine company demanding a refund for a pack of peanut M&Ms. Julia's father Phil (Chris Cooper), Davis's boss, worries that his son-in-law is mourning his daughter wrong. So he tries to give Davis the standard advice: "Repairing the human heart is like repairing an automobile," says Phil, his own eyes rimmed red from tears. "You have to take everything apart, examine everything, then you can put it all back together."
But Davis isn't ready for introspection. He doesn't just ignore Phil's script; he tears it apart, along with everything else that's less broken than he is: a leaking fridge, a slow Wi-Fi router, a creaky door, a flickering bathroom light, anything that will keep his hands busy and his brain numb. Maybe he should have destroyed the yuppie life he and Julia built years ago? On their sunny suburban block, their gray modernist home, with its stern angles and cold granite, doesn't fit in. Who could live there anyway? So Davis bulldozes his own house. What he doesn't do is rebuild.
The metaphor is heavy-handed. Still, Demolition has a light touch. Director Vallée, who made Wild and Dallas Buyers Club, is a good soul who traffics in greeting-card ideas that he offsets with interesting crinkles. He and his editor Jay M. Glen, an astonishing first-timer, communicate Davis's loss in quick glimpses: an uprooted tree, Julia's hair in a brush, her face in a mirror. "I find I'm starting to notice things I never saw before, or maybe I just wasn't paying attention," says Davis. It's a deft choice that only he (and the audience) can spot these details and see how much he feels her presence. The outsiders judging him can’t.
The script leans too much on the long, expository letters Davis continues writing in what he'd rationalize is a quest for $1.25 but that we all know is his attempt to connect to anyone (the further removed from his wife, the better). "Dearest vending company," the missives read, before he realizes the person on the other end is a fellow weirdo played by Naomi Watts. But even when they meet, Vallée avoids the predictable. He doesn't care if they bone, and he'd never pretend that Davis can be healed by the love of another hot babe. He cares that Davis connects to other humans -- that he hammers in those first few nails toward making a friend -- whether that's with a single mom who works in a customer complaint department, or, just as unexpectedly, her cussing, smoking, 14-year-old oddball son (a terrific Judah Lewis).
Gyllenhaal eases the mood with graceful comedy. When Davis trades his businessman suits for work boots and suspenders, he dances — and boy, does he rock a pair of suspenders. He spends the second half of the movie snapping them on and striding through New York, jumping over poles and locking his knees and twisting his hips in an embarrassing jam-band groove. In a film crowded with visual marvels, like a sidewalk scene where Davis struts forward while the crowd creeps backward in slow motion, Gyllenhaal is still the best special effect.
I've been wondering which of last decade's young heartthrobs could mature into an actor who could sprout a beard and play flesh-and-blood men the way Harrison Ford used to do when he bothered. Right now, Gyllenhaal tops the heap. Ryan Gosling spends too much time pouting. The rest, from Chris Pine to Chris Hemsworth to Tom Hiddleston to Benedict Cumberbatch, got sucked into superhero roles with muscles that burst from their shirts whenever they try to play normal humans. It's hard to make interesting adult indie films when you have to block out time for contracted sequels and world press tours. It's hard to concentrate on craft after endless hours prepping CGI stunts and endless stress about whether the studio can make good on a $200 million budget.
But Gyllenhaal got over his blockbuster phase six years ago with the disastrous Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. Now, he's free to do something that's hard to do in a super-suit: act. His recent string of small, smart films proves that the 35-year-old actor is thinking hard about who he wants to be. Gyllenhaal's good films -- Nightcrawler, End of Watch, and this one -- teeter on greatness. Even his lesser movies -- Enemy, Prisoners, Southpaw -- are bold choices in which he's fascinating even when the films themselves are flawed.
Can Gyllenhaal become the most important actor of his generation? He's already thrown away the action-hero blueprint his peers are following. And with films like Demolition, we're watching him build the new model of how to be a grown-up movie star.