Jake Gyllenhaal’s dour investment banker Davis Mitchell could give “American Psycho”’s Patrick Bateman a run for his money in anesthetized comportment and sartorial habits. After the death of his wife, Julia (Heather Lind), from a sudden on-screen car accident, Davis becomes obsessed with destruction. It starts with an exploratory attempt at fixing the leaky refrigerator his wife was complaining to him about when the other car smashes into them and quickly escalates to full-blown demolition of property, all while wearing bespoke button-down shirts with French cuffs.
Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée (“Dallas Buyers Club,” “Wild”) from a screenplay by Bryan Sipe (“The Choice”), the first half of the film wades through murky but stylized waters to a satisfying extent. Taking full advantage of Gyllenhaal’s notorious intensity, the film explores the themes of guilt and grief and the frenetic carnage they can provoke when they remain unexpressed, illustrated by the generous use of jump cuts, fades to black and cinematographer Yves Bélanger’s (Wild, Brooklyn) beautiful contrasting photography; a deconstructed bathroom stall door becomes an art exhibit through his lens.
But Davis isn’t really a psycho, or if he is he’s not allowed to stay that way. He writes heartfelt and eloquent letters to a vending machine company. Denied a package of M&Ms in the hallway of the intensive care unit where Julia died, he pours his heart out on yellow legal pad to the customer service department, run by Karen (Naomi Watts), whose early morning phone calls to Davis hint at a suspense that never materializes.
Conspiracy theorists could find the evidence that Gyllenhaal’s most recent character is the direct descendent of one of his first: Donnie Darko. In the 2001 film, the title character discusses Graham Greene’s short story “The Destructors,” arguing that destruction is a form of creation. But Demolition could never be considered its sequel; Sipe’s script, in its need for patched-over redemption and a happy ending, is too derivative.
From laughing at the pain of stepping on a nail at a construction site to dancing manically through the streets of Manhattan to a classic rock soundtrack, the screenplay grasps at worn tropes as a shortcut to a comfortable resolution. It even introduces a precocious sidekick (Judah Lewis), Karen’s runty teenage son. What started as a menacing compulsion is transformed into nothing more than a playful quirk or, even worse, as Davis, wearing Kevlar, dares Chris to shoot a gun at him, a scene from Jackass.
“Do you ever feel like everything is a metaphor?” asks Davis. In this movie, the answer is, unfortunately, yes.