In a perfectly executed introductory sequence by director Jean-Marc Vallée, Davis Mitchell (Gyllenhaal) and his wife Julia (Heather Lind) are involved in a traffic accident driving into Manhattan; Julia subsequently dies in hospital. Davis works as an investment banker for his father in law Phil (the always watchable Chris Cooper), with whom he has an apparently solid relationship, but as Davis’ grieving takes a decidedly odd turn or two the fractious nature of their relationship becomes more apparent, as do the cracks that existed in the foundation of his marriage.
As he did so rivetingly in last year’s Nightcrawler, Gyllenhaal creates a character who is rooted in mis-direction; what and who he appears to be are really not who he is at all. Davis’ elevation by marriage into the upper middle class and the trappings of a successful Wall Street career appear, on the surface, to have made him a happy man, but they haven’t. Davis is much happier wielding a sledge hammer in the suburbs than watching numbers scroll across a screen high above the streets of Manhattan.
He forms an odd but tender relationship with a woman (played a less grating and strained Naomi Watts) who responds to his complaints to a vending machine company, and he forges an even more loving bond with her semi-delinquent teenage son Chris (a ‘put him on the map’ performance from Judah Lewis), who’s struggling with his sexuality.
Gyllenhaal never puts a foot wrong in his gradual revelation of the real man obscured and imprisoned by the façade of success, and while a few moments stretch the suspension of disbelief (Davis’ bizarre behaviour would undoubtedly resulted in him being hauled off for psychiatric evaluation), this is another enthralling performance of the sort which is becoming the norm for him.
Despite the raves he is consistently receiving, Gyllenhaal still seems to be off the ‘serious actor’ radar for many, but with performance after performance of this calibre, more people are acknowledging the superior talent behind the handsome face.