Film Review: 'Demolition'
There's no limit to what Jake Gyllenhaal can do: he can be a driven psychopath (Nightcrawler), a disturbed boxer (Southpaw), an estranged cowboy (Brokeback Mountain), or a tortured investigator (Prisoners), and bring each one to vibrant life with huge emotional gravitas. He's done it yet again in Demolition, a movie that's equal parts drama and dark comedy, but this time as Davis, a successful New York investment banker who falls into disarray and delayed grief after the sudden loss of his wife, Julia (Heather Lind) in a car accident.
Then it's odd, but still no surprise, that Davis is more disgruntled by the vending machine in the hospital than he is of his deceased wife in the next room. He pens a complaint letter to the vending machine company while also pouring out his feelings - leading the customer service rep Karen (Naomi Watts) to call him off-hours after being touched by his authenticity and lack of a filter. Meanwhile, Davis only finds solace in ripping things apart - the literal result of sage advice (to fix something, you need to take it apart and put it back together) passed onto him by father-in-law and boss Phil (Chris Cooper). Unlike Davis, however, Phil experiences the utmost grief from his daughter's death, and is moved to start a scholarship fund in Julia's name. Meanwhile, Davis, whether he knows it or not, seeks to rebuild himself by tearing everything to shreds.
There's no doubt that this is not your run-of-the-mill romantic melodrama; on the surface, Davis seems like the weirdo type of character to repel sympathy instead of invite it. But it's precisely that weirdness that Gyllenhaal has become a master of playing. Nagged by a leak in the fridge, he slowly builds to the intensity required to just take a sledgehammer to the thing and make it look authentic. It's chaos in his opulent and sleek home. Most importantly, however, his grieving never manages to surface, and Gyllenhaal digs so deeply into Davis's psyche that the notion of delayed grief feels incredibly real.
And director Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyer's Club) bends his film to the will of Davis' mind, jumping back and forth between confusing reality and from heart-wrenchingly tender, candid moments with Julia. It's part montage and part linear storytelling, but all the more touching as a result; Vallée shows incredible skill in tugging at the heartstrings with a romantic story, as both Davis and Karen pour their deepest feelings, thoughts, and insecurities to one another. The deft and unique filmmaking of Vallée calls back to its abundant roots in French New Wave cinema - the ideal atmosphere to emulate, given how bizarre Bryan Sipe's screenplay seems at first.
Obviously, Davis' delayed grieving is the focus of the film, but Vallée gives the same amount of careful devotion to the tension growing between Davis and Phil, as it's apparent the two are on completely different pages emotionally. Phil takes time off from the firm, but Davis is back in almost immediately, and without a tear in his eye. Even the receptionist is more distraught over Julia's death than Davis is, in a scene that deeply contrasts the two men and sets up great anger on Phil's part, which results in some of the most impassioned scenes in the film. There's even more to be found in Karen's young and rebellious son Chris (Judah Lewis, in a career-sparking performance) whose unlikely friendship with Davis results in a touching little tale. And in a way, helping Chris be comfortable with himself is another way for Davis to come to terms with himself as well.
Demolition peers into the mind to try and make sense of a unique case of the grieving process, and it does so with fine cinematic brushstrokes painted by Vallée. The film refuses to apologize for being poignant, and Gyllenhaal gives his all in portraying both the most euphoric and downtrodden moments in Davis's life. It's heavy enough to move the soul, but also deliver quirkiness that is difficult to convincingly pull off. Any film that can use a pack of M&M's stuck in a vending machine as the launch pad for a moving, beautiful picture is undoubtedly a great one, and memorable at that. And what's more, Gyllenhaal adds yet another marquee performance to an already loaded resume.
Rated R. 101 minutes.
Written by Bryan Sipe.
Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée.
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Chris Cooper, and Naomi Watts.