Jake Gyllenhaal exudes a kind of toothy vacuousness that, in the right hands, could be volatile magic. His matinee-idol looks and shark-like grin suggest a devilishly vacant Jack Nicolson or Anthony Perkins on amphetamines. But that potential has gone untapped: Nightcrawler amplified his vacancy at the expense of impish dazzle; Zodiac made him a boy scout; and Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy split his persona in half.
Demolition, which opens this weekend across Kansas City theaters, finally realizes that slick sociopathy. Gyllenhall plays Davis, a dapper and detached Wall Street investment banker. After a semi pulverizes his luxury car and kills his young bride, he’s a little startled to find he couldn’t care less. Maybe “startled’ is a bit of a stretch: his swanky suit stained by his bride’s blood, he’s more concerned that the emergency room’s vending machine steals his pocket change. Practicing in front of a mirror, he masters his in-mourning face at the wake. While his grieving in-laws are busy setting up a scholarship foundation in their daughter’s memory, Davis relishes the perks of being a widower.
If that setup sounds familiar, it’s because “Seinfeld” mined it for some of that show’s sickest jokes, and Demolition initially plays as an extended, provocative recital. But it adds a nice framing device: Davis begins writing a series of increasingly confessional complaint letters to the vending-machine company’s customer service department. He reveals his penchants for deception and toying with strangers, along with a desire to open fire in a crowded airport. Those fantasies play out onscreen and surreal touches invade the movie’s reality—the line blurs between the real world and Davis’s so that we begin to identify with his warped apathy. It’s playfully dangerous stuff that feels like George Costanza playing Patrick Bateman in a Charlie Kaufman movie.
That’s a difficult trio to embrace, but it proves to be wickedly compelling. Unfortunately, it’s all a masquerade: just as we’re on Demolition’s degenerate wavelength, it begins to back off. Karen, the vending company’s customer service rep, corresponds with Davis and the two begin a surreptitious, epistolary courtship. Initially, her existence is up in the air; but as the focus shifts to her tired suburban struggles, the movie reveals itself to be something different and entirely safer: a quirky and uplifting romantic comedy about Davis dismantling his smug indifference and learning how to feel again.
That transition isn’t quite a full-on betrayal—there’s still some charming stuff in the movie’s back half—but the material’s build is off: Davis is such a difficult character to sympathize with that the movie risks a lot by working us into his detached head. By the time we’re there, we’re ready for an edgier movie than the one Demolition wants to be. A third-act subplot involving Karen’s teenage son and his burgeoning sexuality that’s supposed to play as tragic feels like a Hail Mary attempt to inject some much-needed urgency or catharsis. But however earnest, no amount of treacle could satisfy Demolition’s transgressively compelling premise: the setup is so electric, it deserves a better, riskier punchline than the movie is comfortable delivering.
Demolition. Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée. Written by Bryan Sipe. Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Naomi Watts, and Chris Cooper. Distributed by Fox Searchlight. Opens in Kansas City on April 8th.