Full disclosure, Jean-Marc Vallée has never really done anything for me as a filmmaker. I thought Dallas Buyers Club had some nice performances but was bland overall and Wild was frustratingly grating and I never understood the love that it received. His films struck me as overwrought and visually underwhelming. So yeah, my expectations were low for Demolition. Serves me right for having expectations.
Bryan Sipe’s screenplay is wonderfully complex, nuanced, and quite funny.
Vallée has dealt with broken before, almost exclusively, so Demolition doesn’t set itself up to be that different of a subject area for him. He can adequately communicate this need for change, to find oneself, and deal with the crap that rattles around inside. But in Demolition, Vallée has a lead character that we actually care about, one that we want to see bring the pieces together. It not only speaks to the inherent and irascible charm of Jake Gyllenhaal as both an actor and a person, but the overall strength of the screenplay.
And that is where Demolition really starts being great. Bryan Sipe’s screenplay is wonderfully complex, nuanced, and quite funny. Coming to grips with loss is inherently difficult and has the penchant to be nothing but depressing. However, Sipe finds the reality in the situation and the thing about reality is that it so often brings sadness and happiness together. He writes Davis as a full person, one who is inherently broken but with a bright and shiny façade. The character is an often delightful mix of self deprecation, acerbic wit, and a troubling lack of self awareness. It is a role that requires an actor that does more than what is on the page. Something that Gyllenhaal accomplishes spectacularly.
Enough cannot be said for the strength of Gyllenhaal’s performance. His charm is palpable and for duller stretches of the film it glides by almost unnoticed on his back. But he is an actor that gives as much as he takes, which is necessary for this type of film. Because it is about relationships, both their destruction and construction. The friendship that develops between Davis and Naomi Watt’s Karen and Judah Lewis’ Chris is genuine and part of the enjoyment derived from the film comes from watching these relationships mature.
As much as I adored Gyllenhaal in this film (and if you couldn’t tell already, it was quite a bit) he is not the only reason it works as well as it does. Vallée has a confidence this time around that I’ve never seen before. He is venturing out of his perceived comfort zone and trying some really interesting and occasionally daring methods of telling a story. Coupled with some fresh editing, the visual tapestry is rich without being distractingly textured. It adds to the performances more than it stakes its claim aggressively on its own. And that is what great direction should do, delicately shade in the peripherals to make the greater whole better for it. It is wonderful to watch unfold and evolve in much the same way as its subject.
Vallée has a confidence this time around that I’ve never seen before.
I do have my gripes with bits of the film. Chris Cooper and Polly Draper’s in-laws are disappointing in their simplicity. They are basic villains, foils to Gyllenhaal, and little else. These characters are endemic of a greater problem. Outside of the core trio, the other characters are shells, made all the more apparent due to the depth of the central three. It’s more frustrating than anything else, because their inclusion reminds you that this is a film and robs the viewer of some emotional investment.
But I digress, these gripes are small when compared to the many elements that Demolition gets right. It has a fantastic lead in Jake Gyllenhaal, chaperoning this tale of breakdown and build up in a way that is not only interesting but welcoming. You are invested in the proceedings because its character is not a cliché, messed up in his own and very unique way. Jean-Marc Vallée delivers in Demolition, hands down his most compassionate and emotionally satisfying film. His visual storytelling is fantastically on point, more than it ever has been, pairing with Gyllenhaal’s performance and Bryan Sipe’s genuine and engaging screenplay. Demolition is emotional catharsis on film. It balances the humor with the heartbreak in a manner that manages to feel fresh and satisfying.
Demolition is emotional catharsis on film. It balances the humor with the heartbreak in a manner that manages to feel fresh and satisfying.