Movie Review: “Demolition”

Jake Gyllenhaal, Naomi Watts, Chris Cooper, Judah Lewis, Heather Lind
Jean-Marc Vallée

Jake Gyllenhaal has really turned around his career over the past few years with character-driven films like “Nightcrawler,” “Enemy” and “Prisoners,” so it only seems natural that he would want to collaborate with Jean-Marc Vallée, the Canadian-born director who led Matthew McConaughey to Oscar gold in “Dallas Buyers Club” and helped revive Reese Witherspoon’s career with “Wild.” Unfortunately, while Gyllenhaal continues his fine form in “Demolition” – Vallée’s third movie in a row to deal with the subject of grief – the film isn’t as good as the performance at the center of it. Though it’s a refreshingly honest look at coming to terms with the death of a loved one, without Gyllenhaal in the lead role, “Demolition” wouldn’t be nearly as memorable.

The actor stars as Davis Mitchell, a successful New York investment banker who’s become so emotionally numb that he doesn’t know how to react when his wife Julia (Heather Lind) dies in a car accident – one that he escaped with barely a scratch. His father-in-law/boss Phil (Chris Cooper) believes that Davis is in shock and just needs time to process it all, but he can’t even squeeze out a tear at the funeral, instead fixated on the hospital vending machine that failed to dispense the peanut M&Ms he purchased shortly after Julia’s death. Over the following weeks, Davis writes a series of complaint letters to the vending company that take the form of cathartic, soul-baring confessionals filled with intimate details about his life under the assumption that no one will ever read them. But when the company’s lonely customer service representative, Karen Moreno (Naomi Watts), reaches out to Davis after being touched by his brutally honest letters, the pair forms an unlikely connection. With the help of Karen and her rebellious teenage son (Judah Lewis), Davis begins to dismantle his old life to understand what went wrong.

“Demolition” is an offbeat and darkly comic character study that plays like a less edgy version of a Chuck Palahniuk novel; it’s the kind of movie that makes you feel guilty about laughing at such grim material, and then dares you not to laugh again moments later. However, these brief injections of humor add some much-needed levity to the film and help to externalize Davis’ struggle. Though he comes across as a mild sociopath at times (like in one scene where he matter-of-factly tells Phil that he wants to rip open his antique grandfather clock to see how it works), Gyllenhaal imbues Davis with enough charisma that he turns an otherwise unsympathetic character into someone whose erratic behavior is understandable, if not completely relatable. Cooper and Watts aren’t given quite as much to work with, but they’re both solid in their roles, especially the latter, who thankfully isn’t saddled with some lame romantic subplot involving Gyllenhaal. Their relationship is totally platonic, and it makes the characters seem more genuine as a result.

Much like Vallée’s last two movies, “Demolition” has a stripped-down quality to it that emphasizes character over story. While that approach works just fine for the first hour, the script’s shortcomings become more apparent once Davis meets Karen face-to-face, resulting in a deluge of contrived plot developments that are pretty hit and miss. Still, the film ends on such a perfectly poignant note that the sudden detour into melodrama is somewhat forgivable. Although the movie’s thematic metaphor (you have to take things apart before you can put them back together again) is a little too on-the-nose, the idea that Davis deconstructs his marriage by literally tearing down everything around him is an interesting slant on the typical self-discovery tale. “Demolition” gets its message across in the end, but not as elegantly as Gyllenhaal’s committed performance deserves.