In his two previous films, Dallas Buyers Club and Wild, director Jean-Marc Vallee explored how two individuals – a homophobic yet hedonistic man afflicted with AIDS in the early days of that disease, and a woman ravaged by drug addiction and the loss of her mother – found a way to reclaim their souls and reinvent themselves through tragedy. On the surface, Vallee’s new film Demolition treads over much of the same thematic ground, only with very different and disappointing results.
Jake Gyllenhaal plays Davis Mitchell, whose seemingly perfect life – married to the beautiful, attentive Julia (Heather Lind) while working as a hotshot investment banker for his father-in-law’s (Chris Cooper) fancy pants firm – is shattered after Julia is killed before his eyes in a car crash. Davis, meanwhile, walks away unharmed. At first, we are meant to see his numbness as a direct reaction to what happened and a defense mechanism against unimaginable grief. But we soon realize that Davis has been narcotized all along, as he reveals that he feels no real sorrow over Julia’s death and in fact has been bored and adrift in his marriage, his job, and his entire life for some time.
These revelations are handled via his awkward interactions with others — including Cooper (in the movie’s best, most humane performance) and his own parents — the occasional disinterested voiceover, and, most importantly, through a series of letters he writes to a vending machine company. Ostensibly starting with a complaint about a machine that refused to give him his candy in the hospital after receiving the news of Julia’s death, the letters become longer and more confessional, attracting the attention of the company’s apparently lone customer service representative, Karen (Naomi Watts).
Through these events, along with Davis’ bizarre urge to begin taking things like a refrigerator or a bathroom stall door apart, Demolition starts as a promising exploration of how one man deals with an existential sorrow much deeper than he had ever dared to assume. But when Davis and Karen finally meet cute – if you consider middle-of-the-night phone calls, stalking on a commuter train and showing up unannounced on someone’s doorstep to be “cute” – the film plunges into that reliable old barrel of clichés roughly known as “Man/Woman Overcomes Personal Crisis by Acting All Crazy.” Davis, with the help of the pot-smoking Karen, and her sexually confused and obnoxious teenage son (Judah Lewis), indulges in strange behavior that is meant to be whimsical but comes across in Vallee’s in-the-moment, realism-focused way of shooting as ludicrous, unbelievable, and the kind of thing that would get anyone arrested multiple times.
Whether he’s dancing through the streets of New York in perhaps the movie’s most artificial and cringe-worthy sequence or taking first hammers and then a bulldozer to his modern suburban house, and endangering Karen’s son in the process (and again, one wonders why the neighbors aren’t calling the cops in a panic), Davis’ actions become so unrealistically irresponsible that you almost wish the guy would get hauled away. The idea of reinventing oneself, and letting go of emotional and psychological baggage, is an attractive one that we all probably wish we could do on some level, but Davis’ reckless attitude toward others, toward his job, and toward whatever remaining responsibilities he has in his life just becomes distancing.
The other two members of his little trio are just slightly served better. Watts is rendered uninteresting and largely unlikable as the vaguely creepy Karen, whose own motivations are cloudy at best while Lewis starts out annoying but eventually gains some depth through his struggle with his sexuality. Only the way in which Lewis’ Chris acts out feels believable, because it’s the actions that a teenage boy might actually take. Also, it’s so irritating that he arguably pays the highest price while the people who should at some level know better – his mother and new bestie Davis – get off much lighter.
To make matter worse, Bryan Sipe’s script turns the third act into a soap opera, complete with a “shocking” and out-of-nowhere revelation where lots of things and people are thrown against walls. It all just conspires to make Davis’ climactic epiphany feel hollow and unearned – kind of like the rest of the movie. Gyllenhaal is always watchable as an actor, even bringing a level of dignity and gravitas to well-worn sentimental slop like Southpaw, but here the material simply defeats him. After the film’s early scenes, there was rarely a moment where I cared about what happened to him.
After the solidly constructed and truly moving stories he told in Dallas Buyers Club and Wild, it’s hard to understand what value Vallee saw in Demolition’s combination of faux whimsy and empty melodrama. As stated earlier, the thematic connections to those two far superior films are on display here, but it’s notable that those were both based on true stories. It’s ironic that Vallee’s style of filmmaking – minimal makeup, use of available light, and no formal shooting plan or even shot lists, all in an effort to encourage spontaneity and creativity – worked better in the service of chronicling the established journeys of real people but here only document a flimsy tale that ends up demolishing itself.
Demolition is in theaters Friday, April 8.