Demolition: A Contrived, Unsubtle, Surface-deep Grief (Melo)drama


gylenhaal demolition

Editor’s Notes: Demolition opens in wide theatrical release today, April 8th.

Sometimes it takes a bullet to the head to make you rethink your life choices (see, e.g., Regarding Henry). Sometimes it takes a car accident to make you reconsider the upscale domestic bliss you took for granted. Whether you wake up from a coma refreshed with a new outlook – not to mention a personality transplant – or find yourself staring numbly at a vending machine that refuses to cough up a nourishing candy bar, the end result is the same: The central character, usually, almost always, the personification of white male privilege, will emerge transformed, a better father, a better husband, a better man. Through the process of sympathy, empathy, and identification, the audience will share in the transformation, of course. At least that’s the hope embodied in Oscar-bait specialist Jean-Marc Vallée’s (Wild, The Dallas Buyers Club, The Young Victoria) latest film, Demolition (Man), a contrived, unsubtle, surface-deep grief (melo)drama.

Oscar-bait specialist Jean-Marc Vallée’s latest film, Demolition (Man), a contrived, unsubtle, surface-deep grief (melo)drama.

Demolition wastes little time in establishing character, backstories, or relationships before plunging Davis Mitchell (Jake Gyllenhaal), an investment banker/Master of the Universe, and his beautiful wife, Julia (Heather Lind), into sudden tragedy. She dies in a car crash, seconds after pointing out his inattentiveness, while he emerges relatively unscathed, slightly worse for wear and completely and utterly numb. Whether by the shock and trauma of losing his wife or character flaw (the investment banker thing signposts his predatory, ego-centered nature), he can’t feel anything, not for his late wife, who he admits he didn’t like and possibly didn’t love, or for their now vanished future. All that remains is a beautiful, modernist (i.e., personality-free) house, his investment banker gig, courtesy of his father-in-law, Phil (Chris Cooper), and not much else.

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Not even his working-class parents can pull Davis out of his benumbed stupor. Before long, they leave, flying away to Tampa, Florida, never to be seen or heard from again. From everything Jean-Marc Vallée shows the audience, Davis doesn’t have any friends, just his work colleagues, leaving him without a support network. He hits upon the idiosyncratic idea of turning a complaint letter to a vending machine company into a series of confessions mapping out his failures and frustrations, including his grief block. Davis’ letters come to the attention of the company’s sole customer service rep, Karen Moreno (Naomi Watts), a single mother and part-time stalker. The feeling becomes mutual when Karen calls Davis one night. Fascinated, Davis engages in stalker-like behavior of his own, tracking her down to a working class neighborhood where by credulity-straining degrees, he befriends and mentors Chris (Judah Lewis), a sexually confused teen.

Vallée wants the audience to wallow in Davis’ unspoken misery and bizarre acts of destruction.

Demolition takes its title – not to mention Davis’ penchant for breaking things, supposedly to find out how they work, but mostly because he has a destructive streak – from a freighted line of dialogue delivered by Phil. It’s all about breaking down your life then building it back up. That painfully nuance-free metaphor penetrates everything Davis does from that moment on. First he’s taking apart a leaky refrigerator, next he’s taking apart his work computer, and before long he’s paying contractors money so he can help them tear down a house. Meanwhile, his platonic-not-platonic relationship with Karen develops in fitful starts. Before long, however, Demolition shunts Karen to the margins and pushes the Davis-Chris relationship to the foreground. Vallée’s screenwriting collaborator, Bryan Sipe, apparently doesn’t know where to go or how to end Demolition, except to literalize the central metaphor well beyond whatever emotional or thematic meaning it can hold or convey.

But that’s par for the course where grief dramas are concerned. It’s all about base emotions and feelings, not rationality and intellect, but subtext and themes matter here too. Somehow we’re expected to feel something, anything, for Davis’ plight. Instead, it always feels like the audience is on the outside looking in.  Investment bankers may be people too, capable of losing everything just as tragically as anyone else (except not really given that money, power, and status soften all but the harshest blows inherent in our mortality). After wigging out on the job, Phil conveniently gives Davis an extended leave, exactly what Davis needs to go on his search for self-discovery and redemption. You’ll have to go elsewhere for any kind of critique of financial capitalism or conspicuous consumption. Instead, Vallée wants the audience to wallow in Davis’ unspoken misery and bizarre acts of destruction. Luckily for him, Gyllenhaal proves more than capable of handling the emotive demands of the role. It’s one of Gyllenhaal’s less overtly actor turns makes Demolition slightly more bearable. Bearable, however, doesn’t necessarily mean watchable.

6.0 OKAY

It’s one of Gyllenhaal’s less overtly actor turns makes Demolition slightly more bearable. Bearable, however, doesn’t necessarily mean watchable. Demolition is a contrived, unsubtle, surface-deep grief (melo)drama.

  • 6.0

About Author

Mel Valentin hails from the great state of New Jersey. After attending New York University as an undergrad (politics and economics double major, religious studies minor) and grad school (law), he relocated from the East Coast to San Francisco, California, where he's been ever since. Since Mel began writing about film nine years ago, he's written more than 1,600 reviews and articles. He's a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle and the Online Film Critics Society.