R, 100 mins.
2016, R, 100 mins.
Jake Gyllenhaal as Davis Mitchell / Chris Cooper as Phil / Naomi Watts as Karen Moreno / Heather Lind as Julia / Judah Lewis as Chris Moreno
Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée / Written by Bryan Sipe
Jean-Marc Vallee’s DEMOLITION is a problematic, but pretty fascinating drama that taps into the rather unexpected – and sometimes unhealthy – ways that people sift through grief, personal trauma, and mourning.
frequently, losing the life of a loved one produces a whirlwind of
conflicting emotions that are difficult to process and deal with.
We often find ourselves looking deep within our own psyches and
re-discover who we are in the process.
It’s a messy process, to be sure, and it’s almost fitting that
DEMOLITION is, to be fair, sort of narratively chaotic and all over the
place in traversing through its main character’s journey of being
separated from his recently diseased wife.
Not all of Vallee’s film works, but it never overly placates
audience expectations by stridently adhering to any predictable story
beats and formulas. We often
feel like we’re trekking into the unknown alongside the film’s
troubled and tormented soul.
Canadian-born Vallee is no stranger to exploring the innermost workings of
his flawed and damaged characters. Films
like WILD and DALLAS
BUYER'S CLUB showed his innate and effective abilities at dialing
into introspective and idiosyncratic character beats and moments that most
filmmakers usually telegraph with too much obviousness.
Vallee is in his comfort zone very early on in DEMOLITION
developing the insular world that his characters reside in, one that's sort
of characterized by an uncomfortable level of close-guarded despondency
and genuine a lack of intimacy. The
film is ultimately smart for not shying away from how morbidly depressing
it can be to witness a man struggling with his spouse’s passing, but
it’s also laced with a capricious energy and macabre sense of humor that
keeps the whole enterprise afloat. What
essentially kept me involved in DEMOLITION are the core mysteries and
contradictions of its protagonist, which can't easily be defined or
Mitchell (a reliably robust and committed Jake Gyllenhaal) has everything
in life. He has a gorgeous
wife in Julia (Heather Hind), an opulent and lavish suburban home, and a
high paying and respected job as a financial advisor at his father-in-law
Phil’s (Chris Cooper) prestigious firm.
But something is just…off…with his marriage.
The opening scenes of the film show husband and wife calmly trying
to sort through their differences with one another: he’s a workaholic
that seems disinterested in her needs, whereas she frustrated by his lack
of marital commitment. Without warning, their car is hit by another and severely
injures Julia, but leaves Davis with hardly a scratch on his body.
Tragically, Julia succumbs to her head trauma and dies, leaving
Davis a widower. He seems to
take the news rather well in the hospital.
If anything, he just emotionally shuts down on all fronts.
rather compelling and unexpected happens next.
Frustrated by his inability to get a package of M&Ms from the
hospital’s vending machine, he gets the contact information from the
vender and decides to pen a hand written complaint letter to them, but
deep down it’s his way of communicating – in some fashion – his
grief for his wife’s death. Phil
quietly pleads with Davis shortly after the funeral to take time off so that he
can take apart his life, so to speak, and revaluate it. Oddly enough, Davis takes the advice quite literally
and begins to dismantle just about anything with working parts that’s in
front of him (he starts with his defective fridge and then later moves on
to his computer). He even
takes a menial side job at a construction company to learn how to quickly
demolish a house’s inner workings.
While this is happening he receives an unexpected late night call
from a customer service rep from the vending machine company named Karen
(Naomi Watts) that personally becomes rather sympathetic to Davis’s
plight (especially after he writes and sends subsequent letters to her).
A rather odd phone relationship develops between the pair that
later manifests into a face-to-face-meeting.
don’t want to proceed much further with plot details, but I will say
that DEMOLITION doesn’t quite go down the story alleys that I was
expecting, especially in regards to the newfound relationship that Davis
finds himself involved in with Karen.
Lesser films would easily and hastily make Karen a love interest to
console Davis, but Vallee approaches it as more of an unlikely, non-sexual
bond between a pair of lost and downtrodden people that need each
other’s company to get through each new day.
Talking together allows for a form of confessional therapy between
the pair as they relay their confusion and anxiety about the future ahead
of them. He, of course, is
trying to process his wife’s demise and his ever-escalating string of
strange behavioral choices as a result, whereas she struggles with her
own strained relationship with her husband and a distant one with her
teenage son (a wonderfully natural Judah Lewis) that, in turn, is
struggling with his sexual identity.
While this is happening, Davis’ father-in-law desperately tries
to make sense of Davis’ erratic mood swings and standoffishness.
When Davis decides to purchase some construction equipment and
literally destroy his home…I started to worry about him as well.
that’s the point of DEMOLITION, I think.
Davis, as a character, is not an easy one to crack.
Viewers will be left jaded trying to piece together his
psychological motives for his various actions in the film, mostly
because he’s trying to piece them together himself.
And yes, Davis’ impulsive knack for dismantling and destroying
material things around him mirrors his desire to mentally break down his
psyche to explore how he really feels about his wife, which is all a bit
too on the
nose, to be sure. Even when
the thematic undercurrent of DEMOLITION lacks subtlety altogether, it’s
all held together by the tantalizing enigma that is Davis and how
Gyllenhaal – one of the most consistently assured and driven actors of his
generation, and one of the best to have never won an Oscar –
triumphantly conveys the emptiness and bewilderment of him that drives his
highly irrational acts. His
individual scenes with the exquisite Watts and the always-stalwart Cooper
have an immediate and unforced level of dramatic truth to them.
Even though Davis commits to his destructive self-help projects as a
way to process his
grief, there’s rarely a moment when he or the other characters around
him don’t feel authentically rendered.
DEMOLITION suffers in its third act and conclusion, the latter of which seems to rush itself to a fairly rosy and happy sense of closure to Davis’ perplexing story that’s never fully earned. Then there are some late breaking plot developments and would-be shocking revelations that feel more akin to a daytime soap opera than a soulful and thoughtful film about a man’s self-destructive tendencies that paradoxically tries to segue into self-healing. DEMOLITION ends on a note of artificiality and connects its divergent tonal shifts throughout with a bit too much casualness at times. Still, as an exploratory drama featuring a melancholic man destroying his old self to construct a new one, DEMOLITION is endlessly compelling. That, and it features another boldly enthralling wild card performance by Gyllenhaal, who adeptly navigates his way through a very tricky character that doesn’t always invite our instant compassion. The actor’s stellar work and the film’s unwillingness to subscribe to overused conventions in general leaves you legitimately guessing as to what will come next, which is what makes DEMOLITION so compulsively watchable. .