After Dallas Buyers Club and Wild, director Jean-Marc Vallée was suddenly identifiable as a filmmaker with a recognizable look and feel, a dude with a sort of personalized Instagram filter. Not only were his movies rich in their character-driven stories (highlighted by the soulful performances of McConaughey, Leto, Witherspoon, Dern, et al.); they were also sharply edited and enjoyed the benefits of intentional color palettes: the dusty beiges and asphalt whites of Texas, the earth-tonal greens and luminescent yellow-browns of the Pacific Crest Trail at dawn.
In Demolition, which opens Friday in limited release, the film's vision is once again unified along a color spectrum. Here, through the eyes of Davis Mitchell (Jake Gyllenhaal), an investment banker who loses his wife in a tragic car crash, the world is virtually without color — it's all rainy and drab and cold. His White Plains home is polished concrete and stainless steel, geometric and without personality. His Manhattan office is full of white shirts and big windows. When Davis watches TV, it's not people he sees. It's financial charts.
At the hospital where his wife dies, Davis has a familiar mishap with a vending machine. His M&Ms get stuck in the coils. Needing someplace to vent, he begins a correspondence with the vending company's customer service rep, Karen Moreno (Naomi Watts), and through an unexpected blossoming friendship, Davis tries to cope with what he's becoming in the wake of his wife's death. What he's becoming is a destruction savant. He wants to "take thing apart to see what they're made of," he says, and buys a new wardrobe from the army surplus store so that he can join demolition crews in his neighborhood and beat the daylights out of walls. He disassembles his work computer, a bathroom stall, his refrigerator; he and Karen's son Chris (Judah Lewis) go to town on Davis' house with sledgehammers and a demo truck he buys on eBay.
Watching, horrified, at Davis' descent is his wife's father, Phil (Chris Cooper), a principal at the investment firm and an old-school white-collar daddy if ever there was one. He's trying to get Davis (whom he's never much liked) to sign away a portion of his wife's insurance money to start a scholarship fund in her name. Getting to see Cooper and Gyllenhaal on-screen together, in intense scenes about love and loss, will be a special treat for anyone who remembers their fraught father-son relationship in 1999's October Sky.
Bryan Sipe's script is literary in ambition — the early letters to the vending company serve as a perfect expository tool — and awash in sometimes overt symbolism. Davis' ultimate recognitions about his marriage (conveyed beautifully by Gyllenhaal) redeemed Demolition from my own idle speculation that it might have been more effective in a short-story format.
In each of Jean-Marc Vallee's last two films, two actors were nominated for Academy Awards. Both Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto won for Dallas Buyers Club. Though Demolition's April release date doesn't bode well for awards season, both Gyllenhaal and Cooper are worthy of consideration.
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