Demolition is an interesting movie-experience”

by Steve Pulaski

Out of all the human emotions, grief is one of the hardest to convey, pinpoint, and understand for many people. When a person is happy, we can often tell. When they’re frustrated or sad, certain facial expression and unconscious reactions can prompt us to identify that they are. Grief, however, can motivate a person to work or further cripple their ability to do so. It can visibly or invisibly destroy their ability to focus or stay connected. Some keep right on moving; others fall prey to depression and the never-ending cycle of painkillers or therapy. We all have a way of grieving and all we need is a trigger.

Davis Mitchell (Jake Gyllenhaal) gets his turn to grieve in Jean-Marc Vallée’s Demolition. Davis is an investment banker working for a company that handles over $6 billion in stocks, bonds, and money mutual funds. On his way to work one day, he is involved in a car accident that kills his wife Julia (Heather Lind) soon after. When he’s in the intensive care unit, he tries to purchase a bag of peanut M&M’s from a vending machine, but the candy winds up getting stuck in the machine, prompting him to write a complaint letter to Champion Vending Service’s customer service team.

He winds up expelling years worth of built-up guilt and honesty in a three-page letter to the company, where he talks about the death of his wife, his job, and his previous inability to be confiding or honest, in addition to requesting monetary compensation. Eventually, he is contacted by a woman named Karen Marino (Naomi Watts) late in the evening, who reads his letter and finds him to be a seriously lonely and confused person. What winds up brewing is a strange but amiable friendship between not only Davis and Karen, but also her young son (Judah Lewis), who loves smoking and gratuitously using “the f word.”

Directed by
Jean-Marc Vallée
Jake Gyllenhaal, Naomi Watts, Chris Cooper
Release Date
8 April 2016
Steve’s Grade: B

During this time, Davis finds solace in breaking things, even going as far as to working with a construction team to demolish houses, including his own, with sledge-hammers, buzzsaws, and any weapon of destruction he can get his hands on in the moment. This newfound fascination initially stems from his love for taking apart appliances and seeing how they function, something he does to his leaky refrigerator Julia told him to fix moments before the accident. Through all this, one of the only constants in Davis’ life is Julia’s father Phil (Chris Cooper), who can’t understand how Davis can be so emotionally vapid and ostensibly cold to Julia’s death.

About a third of the way through Demolition, an older gentleman a few rows down from me got up, proceeded to the aisle of the theater, turned to me with a smile and a shrug and simply said, “Don’t get it,” before walking out, never to be seen again. “It’s quirky,” I could only reply in that moment, but minutes later, I second-guessed if that was even the appropriate word for this film. Demolition deals with indescribable human emotions appropriately by being an almost entirely unclassifiable film. Elements of psychological drama and black comedy are only sprinkled in so much as to be billed as secondary genres to a film that is largely without a genre and shockingly without much evident structure.

The film was directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, the same man who directed both Dallas Buyers Club and Wild, and the more I see from him, I can’t help but feel he’s the director for those who want to see an “indie movie” but don’t want to be burdened with a great deal of ambiguity, emotion, or subtext. Like his previous efforts, despite their more commendable attributes, Demolition feels as if it will go for gold in terms of articulating grief through rage and pure, primal behavior until it cops out to try to evenly smooth things out late in its third act. Rather than going for broke, it manages to spare a few cents, as if it feels the audience will be potentially more disconnected than they already are if the film doesn’t find a way to cleanly conclude itself.

Even with this roadblock, Demolition is largely sustained by what most movies crave – a great Jake Gyllenhaal performance. Gyllenhaal feels like he’s working off his recent performance of Louis Bloom in the terrific Nightcrawler, where emotional disconnect and a lack of empathy plagues him as a person. In addition, Gyllenhaal has a way with playing mentally unstable in such a communicable way that makes sympathy and concern develop on the audience’s behalf without ushering in pity or the need to suspend disbelief. He’s a treasure of actors and one of the best leading men of our time. Hopefully one day he’ll be received and treated like he is.

With all that being said, Demolition is an interesting movie-experience, filled with energy and contemplation, while also having the ability of being emotionally impacting for some. Anchored by a terrific Gyllenhaal performance and subtext about the lofty idea of grief, even with a disinterest in being totally raw and unequivocally brutal when it has the potential to be, it’s a fascinating on the basis for what it simultaneously says, doesn’t say, hints to, and doesn’t hint to.