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Metro: Jake Gyllenhaal’s continuous quest to explore unlikeable characters

DemolitioncolumnBy Richard Crouse – Metro In Focus

Grief is no laughing matter, but with Demolition Jake Gyllenhaal has made a whimsical movie about a man on the edge of falling into the abyss.

The film continues Gyllenhaal’s quest to explore characters who aren’t immediately likeable or understandable. No other mainstream actor puts himself or herself out there as consistently or successfully as Gyllenhaal. He takes chances, throwing himself at edgy portrayals of real people. Recently we’ve seen him as Nightcrawler’s reptilian Lou Bloom, a slick-talking drifter who falls into the freelance news gathering business, a man who seeks his doppelganger in Enemy and Southpaw’s inarticulate brute with a heart of gold, World Middleweight Boxing Champion Billy Hope.

In Demolition plays investment banker Davis Mitchell. Wealthy and happy, his life is turned upside down when he and his wife Julia are bickering about banal home stuff when the car they’re in is broadsided and she is killed.

Instead of being plunged into grief Davis becomes numb, impervious to the seven stages that usually accompany grave loss. Going back to work immediately after the funeral, however, his behaviour becomes increasingly strange. When he writes a complaint letter to a vending machine company demanding a refund he finds an outlet for his feelings and a therapist of sorts in customer service rep Karen Moreno, played by Naomi Watts. As his letters grow increasingly heartfelt and raw Karen’s sympathetic ear and later, her rebellious son, help Davis demolish his life so he can rebuild his world.

“It’s a story about a guy who begins the movie in a conventional way and ends the movie through an unconventional journey,” said Gyllenhaal at a press conference I hosted with him at TIFF last year, “feeling however [he wants and needs to], and not how society tells him to feel.”

Here the thirty-five-year old actor delivers strong work, grounding the film’s quirkiness in a character you may not understand but can empathize with. He does the heavy lifting and his work humanizes this offbeat film.

When Davis spontaneously dances on the streets of New York or demolishes his martial home it’s outrageous, but it is the sight of a man in pain refusing to face up to the fact that he wasn’t a very good husband and will never be able to make amends to Julia. It’s occasionally very funny, other times tragic and Gyllenhaal drifts between the two poles effortlessly.

The surreal dance scenes are surprising for the audience, but Gyllenhaal says they were a surprise to him as well. “I always looked on the schedule for when the dancing was going to be,” he said at the presser, revealing that director Jean Marc Vallee shot the scenes spontaneously.

“The first time I danced, we were on the train and [Vallee] said, ‘Okay, the train’s pulling in,’ and handed me an iPod, gave me an earphone and said, ‘Are you ready to dance? Let’s go. By the end, I didn’t want to stop dancing, I made like a whirling dervish.”

Gyllenhaal takes the path less trodden, but it has resulted in a body of work populated by interesting and unusual characters.

“I think the people I admire as artists are the people who really listen to themselves,” he says, “even if it is to the detriment of what people might consider success. I’d rather be myself and do what I love than listen to someone else and follow that role and be unhappy.”

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