Demolition is an uneven, at best, arthouse film on grief that is all but saved by a strong Jake Gyllenhaal performance.
I think it’s safe to call this the “emotionally disturbed” era of Jake Gyllenhaal’s career. Following career best performances in Enemy, Nightcrawler, and Prisoners, Gyllenhaal returns with yet another fantastic performance in Jean-Marc Vallee’s Demolition. This time, he plays Davis, an investment banker who deals with the fallout of his wife Heather’s (Heather Lind) death. In retrospect, this is actually a step back from his last few roles, which have been in genre films. However, the intensity and complexity of his performance stand. He proves yet again that he is one of the best actors working today. I wish I could be as positive about the film.
Immediately following the death of his wife, Davis goes to a vending machine in the hospital to get a snack. However, his peanut M&Ms get stuck. This causes him to write a letter to the company that makes the vending machines to complain. This strikes up an interesting relationship with the customer service representative of the company, Karen (Naomi Watts). As the story progresses, Davis deals with his grief in an untraditional way. He begins to dismantle things – everything. Nothing, from his computer to the bathroom stalls in his office to his house, is safe. Eventually, his life becomes intertwined with Karen’s. He begins to form a close bond with her son Chris (Judah Lewis). All the while, he must deal with his Father-in-law and boss Phil Eastwood (Chris Cooper) as he attempts to understand Davis’ behavior.
The first act of Demolition is actually really strong. The dialogue, in particular, reminds me a lot of Aaron Sorkin. It’s fast, sharp, and riddled with brilliantly carried exposition. The first 20 minutes play like a montage of his adult life and marriage. It’s told with a witty cynicism that carries through the film. It also sets up an incredibly enigmatic character in Davis. At one point, he stands in front of the bathroom mirror and attempts to cry during the funeral. He – and we – are confused by his lack of grief. That’s really what we see for this part of the movie. His reaction to her death. It’s beautifully shot and edited. Jake Gyllenhaal even sells you on the character and his reactions.
But here’s the issue with Demolition. The first third and last twenty minutes together would make a really interesting arthouse film on grief. Though relying on cliches, the sharp Sorkin-esque dialogue and brilliant editing make for a darkly funny character study. However, the middle third and climax feel disconnected from the story. While I really appreciated the sentiment behind Naomi Watts’ character, the lack of real value of the character bogged down the flow. In addition, the character of the son felt unnecessary. That story arc felt like a distraction from the real purpose of the story. Had they connected that story more obviously – like have the son be the catalyst for his eventual acceptance of his wife’s death – then it would have been a stronger movie overall.
However, as I alluded to before, the final 20 minutes of the movie nearly save it. Based on the first half, it’s the ending that we wanted all along. It’s just that the journey to that ending is misdirected. You don’t feel the emotional journey. You see a stitching of interesting shots and dialogue. It’s often the trap that many arthouse films fall into. It injects style without meaning. An arthouse film, in lieu of a goal, focuses on the thoughts and motivations of the characters. That doesn’t quite happen here. Compare that to Moonlight, another 2016 arthouse film, which is very intentional with its narrative and journey.
I can’t tell you whether or not you’ll enjoy Demolition or not. It seems the response for it is sharply divided. But it really depends on your taste in films. You may pull more out of it than I did. However, I can say that if you’re looking for a really strong Jake Gyllenhaal performance and a few good laughs here and there, then give it a go.