Film Review: Demolition

Pairing Jake Gyllenhaal with director Jean-Marc Vallée makes for a quirky and inventive dark comedy with emotions that are palpable.
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Within the first few minutes of Demolition, the new film from Jean-Marc Vallée, director of Dallas Buyers Club and Wild, we watch as Julia (Heather Lind), wife of Jake Gyllenhaal’s Davis Mitchell, suddenly dies in a car crash as the two of them argue over inconsequential household minutiae.

It’s the type of opening that sets you up for a film that constantly keeps you on your toes, going in unexpected directions and not always ones that will make you altogether comfortable.

After learning his wife is dead, Davis tries to buy a candy bar in the hospital waiting area, but loses his money in the vending machine and begins a letter-writing campaign to complain. Davis works for his father-in-law Phil (Chris Cooper) in the world of finance, having basically married into wealth, and most of his colleagues are surprised when he shows up for work the day after his wife’s death. His behavior gets more erratic over the next few days, making him less available to help Julia’s father set up a scholarship in her name. Instead, he finds a sympathetic ear in the vending machine’s customer-service rep, Karen Moreno (Naomi Watts), with his deeply personal and introspective letters, before he starts bonding with her teenage son Chris (Judah Lewis) as well.

Demolition is first and foremost a movie about grief, and how everyone deals with it in different ways, but it’s as unconventional as you can get, with a dark comic tone that mirrors something like Fight Club or American Psycho. That means that it probably won’t be for everyone, although it never enters territory quite as dark as either of those movies.

It’s a journey of discovery that allows for Gyllenhaal to continue his impressive run after Nightcrawler in 2014 and Southpaw in 2015 with a performance that may not be as transformative or shocking as those other roles but plays more to his natural charm. Davis seems like such a freeing and cathartic role for the actor, who gets to have more fun, especially in the scene where he’s dancing mindlessly through Grand Central Station as unwitting commuters ignore him.

The relatively small supporting cast helps keep the film focused, with Chris Cooper reminding us why he won an Oscar with an emotional supporting role that allows for some of the film’s strongest drama. Watts is also fine in a far less showy role, but one that offers much-needed empathy to counterbalance Davis’ demeanor.

The screenplay by Bryan Sipe is distinctive and original, especially in the first-person narrative of Davis writing his letters, following his thought process as he starts taking various appliances apart, which escalates into outright destruction. There is a love story in play, but it’s not the typical one where the characters fall into bed together. Instead, Davis maintains a fairly platonic relationship with Karen, which is another thing that sets the film apart, since it never goes where you might be expecting.

Vallée continues his tradition of exploring a character’s past through haunting dreamlike imagery, in this case of Davis’ late wife appearing before him in visions. Rock music plays a large part in creating the film’s energy, whether it’s overtly, like the use of Heart’s “Crazy on You,” or more subliminally, but Vallée’s choice not to use traditional film scoring to drive the film’s emotions also gives Demolition its own unique feel.

The movie may not have the best possible ending, since that’s where it veers the closest to more standard feel-good storytelling, but Sipe’s fantastic script and Gyllenhaal’s willingness to go to extremes make it a surprisingly fun affair despite what might seem at first like a film that could drown in its own emotions with its themes about grief.

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