Suddenly, it all has to go: the marble kitchen worktop and the double-width range cooker. The $2,000 coffee machine. The hand-blown glass vase. The reproduction French black chest of drawers with matching mirror. Davis Mitchell (Jake Gyllenhaal) takes a sledgehammer to the lot, smashing his entire life into matchsticks and shards of glass.
Demolition, directed by Jean-Marc Vallee (Dallas Buyers Club, Wild), tells the story of a very individual grieving process. New York investment banker Davis has a perfectly respectable, normal life untila car accident rips his wife away from him. In the wake of the crash, Davis responds not with an outpouring of emotion but instead with quiet fixation. In a hospital corridor, still spattered with blood from the collision, Davis tries to buy a packet of M&Ms from a vending machine and is frustrated to see the candy stuck fast behind the glass.
During his wife’s wake, the trapped M&Ms are still playing on Davis’s mind. He sits down and pens a long letter, which begins as a strident complaint to the vending machine company about the state of their product before morphing into a full-blown confession. Seemingly addicted to this outpouring on paper, Davis writes another letter, then another. And another.
This is how the numbed widower falls into the orbit of Karen (Naomi Watts), the vending company’s customer relations manager who has plenty of issues of her own – not least a fondness for cannabis and a wayward son, Chris (Judah Lewis) whose hobbies include swearing and listening to 70s rock.
Gyllenhaal, who’s played some magnificent outsiders of different stripes, from the troubled teen in Donnie Darko to the freaky freelance cameraman in Nightcrawler, turns in another engagingly brooding turn here. The actor gives his character just enough shade to keep us guessing; where will Davis’s breakdown take him? At certain points, he seems darkened and sinister enough to do something outright homicidal. Odd details like an old station wagon prowling outside Davis’s house and his fascination with taking apart an antique grandfather clock provide a pleasing ripple of off-beat tension.
Watts is an unusual choice to play the lonely, pot-smoking Karen, but there’s an easy chemistry between she and Gyllenhaal. The real find, meanwhile, is Judah Lewis as the rebellious teenage son – the scenes he shares with Gyllenhaal are among the funniest in the film.
It’s the humour that makes Demolition worth seeking out, despite the sometimes unconvincing dollops of melodrama in screenwriter Bryan Sipe’s story; Vallee finds arresting ways of visually illustrating Davis’s grief, and contrasts them with some disarming moments of humour. Faults can certainly be found in other strands of the plot – not least in the scenes where Davis engages in long shouting matches with his corporate boss father-in-law, played strongly by Chris Cooper in a one-note role.
But Demolition’s at its strongest when it concentrates on Davis himself – his struggle to feel something, anything, in the wake of a life-changing event. Gyllenhaal and the rest of the cast are dependably excellent, as you might expect, but Vallee’s humane, gently creative direction also makes vital something more than a run-of-the-mill drama.
Demolition is out in UK cinemas on the 29th April, and is playing at the Glasgow Film Festival.