A disappointingly shallow dig into the soul of a man who should be on the edge, but isn’t
Jean-Marc Vallée, director of Dallas Buyers Club and Wild, adds another existential crisis to his roster. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Davis Mitchell, a man whose wife is killed in a car crash. Davis does not take this well, but not in the way you’d expect. He shows no signs of obvious sadness but becomes obsessed with breaking things – his fridge, his computer, his house – to try to understand how they work. He develops a co-dependent friendship with a customer service rep (Naomi Watts) for a vending machine supplier to which he’s complained about a disappointing experience with a packet of M&Ms. He can’t catch a break.
There are many beautiful character touches here, both in screenwriter Bryan Sipe’s dialogue – each main character gets at least one terrific monologue with profound thoughts whittled down into crisp lines – and Vallée’s direction. In a single shot that almost tells the film’s entire story, Davis stares into a mirror while hiding in the bathroom at his wife’s funeral. His face crumples into sobs, but a moment later snaps back into a stony stare, eyes unmoistened. He’s rehearsing grief, trying to show what he can’t feel. Yet for every moment of elegant insight there’s a stretch of mundane psychobabbling. The metaphor of tearing things apart in the hope of fixing them is not a tricky one to decode, yet Vallée is at pains to keep explaining it.
This doesn’t make us understand Davis better; it makes us want him to hurry up and realise what he’s doing. Davis is stuck in a cycle, but it’s not very entertaining to be stuck in it with him.
Gyllenhaal has been on a spectacular run of performances over the last few years – Enemy, Nightcrawler, Southpaw – and if Davis Mitchell is not a role to be remembered with those, it’s not because he fails to do everything he can with it. He plays emotional inertia as well as you possibly can, but for most of the film he’s not allowed to let us in. There’s a late rush to give us some sort of resolution but it’s an icky, over-simplistic sop featuring smiling children and a carousel. Vallée’s asked us to crawl into the depths of man’s soul and then leaves us in the shallows.
Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Naomi Watts, Chris Cooper
Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
Release date: 29 Apr, 2016