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Would ‘Demolition’ Have Survived the Oscar Season?

Either way, Jake Gyllenhaal seems to be doing it for all the right reasons lately.

When Fox Searchlight announced the company’s fall 2015 release slate in July, it included a bump to April 2016 for Jean-Marc Vallée’s “Demolition.” Many assumed it was a sign of weakness where awards potential was concerned (failing, of course, to note the reigning best picture king’s success with March release “The Grand Budapest Hotel” last year). But one still wonders how the film might have played in the season had it stayed the course.

Not long after the release date news came the announcement that “Demolition” would open the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival, and that raised a few eyebrows. It’s unique to grab that slot and then beg off for the next year on release, but the Canadian Vallée really wanted to play to his people north of the border, as he has with “C.R.A.Z.Y.,” “The Young Victoria,” “Dallas Buyers Club” and “Wild.”

After the film premiered Thursday night, you could already tell it had landed a sour note with a number of critics who tossed out a quick Twitter thought before ducking into Michael Moore’s latest. Variety‘s Peter Debruge registered his own displeasure with the script in particular, calling chunks of it “baldly manipulative” in his review.

I wasn’t shocked, really. “Demolition” is a delicate film — some might slam it with a pejorative “precious” — and an easy one to be cynical about at that. It plays some things on the nose (endearingly, I found). So it was probably smart to keep it away from the Oscar season tempest. Not to mention: “Youth,” “Brooklyn,” “Far From the Madding Crowd,” “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” — Searchlight has plenty to work with this year, having also bumped Luca Guadagnino’s “A Bigger Splash” to clear up some space.

What screened at TIFF was a slightly different cut than what I saw (and I’m told a bit more affecting in this state). But I’ll say I liked “Demolition” very much. I tend to adore Vallée’s personal sense of craft. Even when the story doesn’t grab me (“Wild,” for example, which felt derivative on the page), I enjoy the way he puts movies together. He edits them with grace, getting in and out of scenes with a quickness, assembling narratives with unique visual ideas.

My biggest “Demolition” takeaway, however, was being impressed — yet again — with Jake Gyllenhaal’s ongoing streak of interesting choices.

I feel like you could have written a version of this piece last year (and I probably did), but ever since the disappointing 2010 video game adaptation “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time,” and particularly since an agency switch in 2012, the 34-year-old star has been on a quest to push himself, explore new territory with bold filmmakers (Duncan Jones, David Ayer, Denis Villeneueve, Dan Gilroy) and just keep growing. In “Demolition,” he delivers a confident performance that’s remarkable for how, I don’t know — at ease with the character he is. There’s no swagger, per se. Just an utter comfort. It’s a difficult quality to describe but Gyllenhaal is sort of nailing that, specifically, lately. You might call it charisma but there’s some extra English on it. Between this and his fleeting but equally assured work in “Everest,” you can’t help but be reminded of it.

And next he’s working with Tom Ford (“Nocturnal Animals”), another compelling artist who will no doubt add a whole other shade to the actor’s palette.

I haven’t met a single person in the industry who understands how Gyllenhaal missed a lead actor nomination for “Nightcrawler.” He bobbed and weaved against critical blows aimed at this summer’s “Southpaw,” emerging unscathed. And he already seems to be bulletproof even in dismissals of “Demolition.” There’s a ton of good will out there. One of these days, and soon, he’s going to win an Oscar. When the role comes, he’s going to seize it and be smart about it and the timing will be right, because he just seems to be doing it for all the right reasons lately. What’s more, it shows in the work.

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