Demolition is a film defined by its contrivances. Critically and promotionally; talk of the movie has been dominated by the novelty, and sometimes derived for the ‘wackiness’ of its central premise. In it, Jake Gyllenhaal plays Davis, a man who loses his wife in a car crash and, having never been attentive enough to love her in life, attempts to do learn how to do so in death – through correspondence with a vending company who owns a machine which ate his change shortly after her death and by the literal dismantlement of various objects in his life. In other words: it’s not hard to see why. But a dodgy premise is not cause to right off a project (I’m looking at you, Breaking Bad). The pull of the film hence became the presence of Jake Gyllenhaal who, after the streak of Prisoners, Nightcrawler, Enemy and Everest has joined the likes of Joaquin Pheonix and Oscar Isaac as two of the most reliable young actors in American cinema – and the director, Jean-Marc Vallee of the excellent Dallas Buyers Club and Wild. Thanks to their respective talents, Demolition works: against the odds.
Firstly those contrivances: it’s undeniable that this film is very on-the-nose. The worst section of the picture is easily the period in which Gyllenhaal literally says “everything has become a metaphor”, and the filmmakers weren’t lying: for a time everything that appears on screen has little narrative consequence: it exists to say something about Davis’ inner-mood, which of course ironically comes at the behest of relatable characterisation. In one terribly ill-conceived Kaufman-ian moment, Davis is diagnosed as literally having part of his heart missing – eaten by moths. Well… damn.
What’s strange however is that visually Vallee remains a nuanced director: the splicing of snapshot images around the narrative, sometimes punctuating the beats of dialogue recited from letters very beautifully, means he is a strong purveyor of show-don’t-tell filmmaking. So why he made the most on-the-nose film of the year so far simultaneously is bewildering. When he commits to an image though, it takes on a more natural significance – such as the habit of Davis of donning cargo pants and taking apart everything from a coffee maker to his entire home as he goes. It conjures some quite striking images, and for a character with an evidently skewed view of reality: the sideways take on his situation actually makes narrative sense.
Gyllenhaal himself proves himself again after Nightcrawler as the definitive Hollywood sociopath – playing emotionless with charm rather than tedium, and he’s given much more range to work with in this film than the former: bringing some genuinely emotive moments when his façade begins to crack. Naomi Watts is strong in the film, but her character doesn’t actually do much: the strongest relationship forms between Davis and Naomi’s character’s son Chris – a dynamic glam-rock teen who provides a brilliant foil for Davis’ childlike affectations, and provides easily the strongest and most loveable scenes of the film. Images of them shooting pistols at each other to a hard-rock score are some of the most memorable of the year. Pictures of middle-class angst such as this tend to be rather heavy in tone, but for all the talk of pretentiousness, Demolition never gets bogged down in a sense of self-seriousness, and tells it’s tale with brevity. It’s a swift 100 minutes. The cinematography of the film is also gorgeous, and is refreshingly sun soaked: for an era in which the craft has become synonymous with shade.
Overall, Demolition works as a portrayal of grief – or rather, a lack of it. More than anything though, its title actually describes the process Davis uses to medicate his regret: dealing with being trapped between a suitcase and a chrome apartment by literally tearing them apart. The climax isn’t hard to predict, but is no less powerful when it comes, even if it is a metaphor.
Theodore J. Inscoe