A film review by Craig J. Koban April 17, 2016


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.   

Far too 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. 

The 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 categorized. 



Davis 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. 

Something 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. 

I 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. 

But 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.    .  

  H O M E