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Review: 'Demolition' an artful breakdown held together by Jake Gyllenhaal

Everything put together falls apart, a wise songwriter penned about life, ambition and fate.

But what if someone purposely wrecks everything life provides before fate takes any more away? Wouldn't that lend a sense of control over a situation out of his or her hands? And is that insanity or an enlightenment?

Those heavy questions are handled with mordant grace in Jean-Marc Vallée's Demolition, another in a mixed tradition of midlife crisis movie fantasies. Demolition is more in caustic line with American Beauty than The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, but the rat race desperation and escape from privilege is the same.

The soul to be re-awakened here belongs to Davis Mitchell, a meticulously manscaped success on Wall Street and an emotionally absent husband at home. Playing emotional absence is Jake Gyllenhaal's speciality, and Davis is a trove of droll detachment and sad-pup expression.

Demolition begins as we surmise Davis' day typically does, driving into the city with wife Julia (Heather Lind), who may as well be an Uber driver for the attention he pays her. A shocking accident later, Davis awakens to Julia's father, his boss Phil (Chris Cooper), delivering news of her death. Phil never liked Davis. Now he may be stuck with him.

In a fog at the hospital, Davis loses money in a jammed vending machine. At Julia's wake, blankly out of step with everyone else's grief, Davis is inspired to take control of something, anything. Being refunded for those peanut M&Ms is a start. He composes a request letter that turns into a confessional, baring his life to a stranger.

Demolition could easily be maudlin, some urban Nicholas Sparks-type weeper in which ideas run out before tissues. But this is Vallée, whose dexterity with downbeat material — Dallas Buyers Club, Wild — is edgier, faintly abstract with shifts in time and tone. Working from Bryan Sipe's lyrically harsh screenplay, Vallée dares the audience to cry at tragedy, rather than expecting it.

That's because nothing Davis does after Julia's death makes sense to anyone but him. One letter to the vending company becomes several after a customer service rep named Karen (Naomi Watts) is touched and replies. Davis becomes destructively curious about a world around him that's too long ignored. The only way to understand how something works is by tearing it apart; a refrigerator, a light fixture, a life.

Demolition works this metaphor beautifully until Davis' path crosses too often with other damaged souls. No one in Vallée's movie is happy or seems capable of such until enough suffering passes. That leads to Davis' anti-role-model relationship with a disturbed teenager (Judah Lewis) and conflict with a rival for Karen's attention.

Vallée's movie itself begins falling apart after being so artfully put together. Yet Gyllenhaal's performance is the center that holds, making Davis' melancholic obsession and irrational acts seem like the sanest things anyone could do. His disintegration is the actor's triumph.

Contact Steve Persall at spersall@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.

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