Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Naomi Watts, Chris Cooper, Judah Law, C.J. Wilson, Polly Draper, Malachy Cleary, Debra Monk, Heather Lind
MPAA Rating: (for language, some sexual references, drug use and disturbing behavior)
Running Time: 1:40
Release Date: 4/8/16
Review by Mark Dujsik | April 7, 2016
There's something vital missing from Demolition. Perhaps it's as simple as a scene of the protagonist being diagnosed with some mental health issue or an admission on his part that he knows he has a problem. Even though those options might be too simplistic, they would go a long way to being able to understand Davis (Jake Gyllenhaal), whose wife dies in a car crash in the first scene of the movie. He spends the rest of the movie incapable of feeling anything about her death.
We all grieve in our own ways, but this isn't really grieving her loss. He even admits at points throughout the movie that he didn't love her. Maybe that's a lie. Maybe that's the way he copes, by convincing himself of something so that he doesn't need to feel the pain of her sudden, unexpected death. Maybe it's the truth, and if that's the case, we have to wonder if he simply, specifically doesn't love her or if that's a symptom of something deeper within him. There are a lot of "maybes" and "ifs" here, and they add up quickly. We don't know for certain, and that's a problem.
What we know—what the movie tells and shows us—is that Davis is merely the hollow shell of a man. What the movie wants us to do is to sympathize with him in spite of his resistance to emotions or his incapacity to feel, as well as the movie's own opposition to explaining his predicament or its inability to offer an understanding of his apathy. The screenplay by Bryan Sipe doesn't much care for who Davis is. It's concerned with how he reacts to his situation.
That reaction is, to say the least, a bit excessive. At first, the nature of his response appeals to a sense of curiosity about the character. While at the hospital and shortly after his father-in-law Phil (a strong Chris Cooper) tells him that his wife Julia (Heather Lind) has died, Davis tries to buy some candy from a vending machine. It becomes stuck in the machine, and he becomes fixated on writing letters to the company in charge of the machine. These aren't just requests for a refund, either. They're lengthy manifestos of sorts, detailing his lack of emotions, his irritation with his job at a financial company run by Phil, and his daily grooming habits (which he forgoes after Julia's death).
Eventually, he also confesses a newfound desire to take apart things. It starts with the refrigerator in his home, about which Julia repeatedly complained—especially his procrastination toward doing anything about it. Ostensibly, his desire for deconstruction comes from a want to rebuild the things he dismantles. The refrigerator, though, remains in pieces on the kitchen floor.
That is, as they say, the movie's hook. The metaphor—of a man who realizes there's a problem with himself that he cannot fix—is apparent. Sipe presents it on that metaphorical level and leaves it there. The other side of Davis' impulse, as his projects increase in scope (He pays a team of workers to allow him to help them destroy a house and, eventually, thinks that might be a good idea for his own home), is the visceral thrill of destruction. It's a chance to finally feel something, even if it's force of a sledgehammer on a granite countertop or the pain of stepping on a nail. In one of his letters, he suggests that his problems stem back to his childhood.
The letters lead to the movie's less intriguing section. In it, Davis starts up a friendship (and maybe more) with the woman on the receiving end of his correspondences. She's Karen (Naomi Watts), who works in customer service for the vending machine company.
She, too, is damaged, although in a far more generic, unspecified way. Their relationship exists to provide Davis with an outlet for vocalizing his issues. Karen's problems only serve as a complement to Davis' own mental state. The same also goes for her teenage son Chris (Judah Lewis), whose problems are more identifiable than either Davis or Karen's. An awkwardly sweet scene in which the boy expresses his concerns to Davis, who offers pragmatic advice, is one of the few scenes that directly addresses anything of substance about any of these characters. It follows a scene in which Davis lets Chris shoot him with a pistol while he wears an armored vest, so even this relationship isn't above the excess of the story's premise.
Director Jean-Marc Vallée seems to be stymied by the material as well. The screenplay's modes veer wildly between moments of comedy and more serious-minded considerations, but Vallée's approach is somewhere down the middle. In other words, the tone of the movie is indecisive and flat, as if the director is hedging his bets against taking it too far in one direction, lest he lose control when the screenplay shifts in the other.
A less sturdy and more daring hand—one willing to go with the screenplay's mood changes—may have helped, but there's still the problem that Davis' dilemma remains a mystery. At a certain point in Demolition, the curiosity about his condition simply isn't enough. We need to know more than the movie is willing to disclose.
Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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