2016, R, 100 min. Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée. Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Naomi Watts, Chris Cooper, Judah Lewis, Heather Lind, Polly Draper.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., April 8, 2016
Were awards to be given for the quantity of metaphors a movie puts forth, then Demolition might topple the record. These artificial constructs guide Demolition’s plot and deter the film’s overall believability. This film about human emotions, and the lack thereof, stuffs its ideas into bullet-point metaphors, while forgetting that emotions are messy, unruly things that don’t conform naturally to organizing principles. I might say that Demolition bulldozes past all that messiness, but the filmmakers insert their own bulldozer midway through the story, rendering the metaphoric literal and the literal absurd.
Even though Demolition can be deconstructed with a putty knife, there remains much to appreciate – most significantly, the central performance of Jake Gyllenhaal, who appears in virtually every scene. Gyllenhaal is Davis Mitchell, an investment banker who works in the firm of his father-in-law (Cooper), and becomes a young widower just moments into the film. For the rest of the movie, Davis is engaged in the task of coming to grips with his absence of emotion – for his dead wife, his well-appointed home, or his well-meaning family and associates. Curiously, he becomes fixated on the malfunctioning candy machine in the ICU area of the hospital where his wife died. Out $1.25 for a bag of M&Ms that failed to emerge when he put in his coins, Davis pens a letter about the faulty machine to the vendor’s customer-service department. In the pages-long letter, he includes much personal detail about his present life. After writing four revealing letters, he receives a phone reply at 2am from the customer-service rep, Karen Moreno (Watts), who is moved by what he writes. A friendship evolves between them, as well as between Davis and Karen’s adolescent son Chris (Lewis). Nothing about any of this is normal, although it is presented as such. Along the way, Davis learns that in order to reassemble his life, he must first deconstruct it – and that’s where the bulldozer, the unused tool kit his father gave him, the refrigerator leak his wife (Lind, who mostly appears in vague flashbacks) had been bugging him to fix come into play. Of course, all this happens after he pulls the emergency brake on the commuter train he’s on after confessing a truth to a stranger.
The screenplay by Bryan Sipe is from Figurative Writing 101, but director Jean-Marc Vallée is on a role after guiding four actors to Oscar nominations in his last two films: Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern in Wild, and Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club, who both won their categories. I suspect that when Demolition screened as the opening-night film at the Toronto International Film Festival last September, its distributors were testing the waters to see if they should release the film in 2015 and promote it for year-end awards. Obviously, the decision was made to release it in the spring of 2016, but that does not diminish Gyllenhaal’s award-worthy performance. Indeed, Demolition scooped up an Audience Award when it played here last month at SXSW. The distinctive physicality Gyllenhaal brings to every role he plays is challenged in Demolition due to his character’s dispassion, although we understand that some spark is returning to Davis’ life because of Gyllenhaal’s physical presentation and change – especially when he starts dancing. It’s hard not to find joy in the character’s rejuvenation – or renovation, to keep with the construction theme. Nevertheless, Demolition is built on a rickety foundation.