Demolition sees Jean-Marc Vallée continuing to grow as a director, with Jake Gyllenhaal continuing the trend of delivering great lead performances for him.
A hedge fund manager, Davis, is in the car when his wife is killed in an accident and he handles the grief, or lack thereof, of her death in an unusual way. Davis becomes interested in taking things apart, rather forcefully, searching for the meaning in anything as he doesn’t understand why he can’t find any meaning in his marriage. He also takes up writing his story to a vending machine customer service woman, Karen, who in turn begins to secretly follow him around, trying to understand Davis’ odd behavior, and the two eventually start calling one another, creating an odd friendship without ever meeting.
This is a weird movie.
That said, for two-thirds of the runtime the weirdness works. Jake Gyllenhaal is a compelling weirdo and he does a great job of being someone we oddly root for even though we don’t really have a reason to do so. Odds are Davis isn’t the pinnacle of a great human being, he is kind of a wall street bro/sociopath which leads to his brazen, in your face, attitude as he starts to breakdown. Gyllenhaal conveys all of that, but keeps the character likable, it is quite the feat.
Vallée also sells this weird relationship at the center of the film, which sees Davis writing letters to Karen as a way of just venting out everything that is going on in his head. The first four letters are sent to a faceless corporate help address, but once Karen makes contact you can see the personal touch Davis starts putting into these. Vallée and his editor, Jay M. Glen, beautifully dance these two around each other, coming to the perfect moment where they finally get brought together. Sadly, the script doesn’t really know where to go from there, even if Gyllenhaal continues to make the film incredibly watchable.
Naomi Watts plays Karen, and she gives her a depth and sadness to compliment Karen’s set up on the page, but the script abandons her just as soon as we are close enough to get to know her. Instead of digging deeper into what makes Karen tick, or not at the moment, the film and Davis transition to interacting with Karen’s teenage son, Chris, and the film isn’t nearly as successful. The relationship tries to tackle an interesting subject, gay teens (and it ultimately is pro being yourself, which is great), but it ends up feeling like more of an excuse to rationalize Gyllenhaal’s childish side, which wasn’t really necessary. The film seems to be saying that Davis misses feeling youthful, wasn’t ready to grow up when he did, and I get that, but I don’t know what that has to do with the death of his wife besides marriage being a right passage into adulthood. I might have been able to roll with writer Bryan Sipe’s youthful detour if it was a piece of Davis’ journey, but the film sort of settles on this childhood behavior by default because it doesn’t go anywhere else. Yes, we got an amazing sequence of Gyllenhaal rocking out on the streets of NYC, but the film’s low point also cames out of this relationship in an ill-advised detour with a gun. I didn’t need to see Davis go to this extreme and I was rather unsettled by the imagery of Chris and what he does with the weapon. I’m sure it was Vallée’s goal to unsettle the viewer, but the sequence in the park seems so wrong-headed in this day and age; the first part of the gun sequence in the bathroom I believe.
The big dramatic moment of the third act is also not really earned, and certainly seems tacked on so the film feels like there is some sort of rousing conclusion with. The place Davis ends up at, I’m not really sure what he learned or where he is going. Karen’s absence is really felt in the back third of the film and it really seems like a missed opportunity to have had her and Davis explore their mental states together.
I’ve mentioned Gyllenhaal and Watts are both quite good in the film and I can’t really overstate that. Yes, Watts gets abandoned, and could have had more to do, but she is attuned to the tone of the film and has a great oddball chemistry with Gyllenhaal. Watts is always someone you want more of and it’s a shame the film loses sight of her. Gyllenhaal can rank Davis as one of his better roles and is worth seeing the film just for his performance alone. There are so many layers you can unpack from his performance, never letting us forget who he was before the accident even though we never really see who he was. He is just so damn likable, I could watch this performance for hours. Chris Cooper doesn’t give us anything we haven’t seen in a grieving father role, while Judah Lewis makes the most out of Chris even though the film shouldn’t have invented him. Lewis can not pull off “cool” though, not his strong suit, but the gay conversation with Gyllenhaal is pretty great.
Demolition is another strong directorial effort from Vallée, as he continues to give his cast the chance to shine. I love the editing and visual storytelling on display here from Vallée, as Demolition feels like a culmination of what he was going for with his last couple of films. Fans of Gyllenhaal will be on cloud 9 here, and we will continue to mourn the fact that Watts never gets the roles she deserves. Still, I would highly recommend Demolition, shortcomings and all.