In “Demolition,” Gyllenhaal & Company Shine Through a Strained Metaphor


Demolition (Jean-Marc Vallée, 2016)

The last few years have been good to Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée, with Dallas Buyers Club, in 2013 (nominated for 6 Oscars and winner of 3), and Wild, in 2014 (nominated for 2 Oscars, though winner of none), both bringing him well-deserved acclaim. Though each a little heavy in their respective melodramas, they feature solid performances and fine cinematic touches. Vallée may be in need of a lesson in nuance, but he is most definitely a strong director of actors who knows where to put the camera when and why. My favorite of his films, so far, was Young Victoria, in 2009, which provided lead actress Emily Blunt with a terrific showcase for her prodigious talent minus the plodding narrative devices of Vallée’s later work.

And now we have Demolition, starring Jake Gyllenhaal (Nightcrawler), Naomi Watts (While We’re Young) and young newcomer Judah Lewis (last year’s Point Break remake), among others, all of whom shine, as actors do with Vallée. Gyllenhaal plays Davis, a successful investment banker whose life is turned upside down when his wife, Julia, is killed in a car accident that leaves him without a scratch (she was driving, and they were arguing). His father-in-law, Phil (Chris Cooper, August: Osage County), is also his boss, and is surprised when Davis shows up at work the next day (Phil is at home, stricken). Everyone grieves in their own way, it seems, and Davis is so unhinged in the aftermath of Julia’s death that he can only cope by forging ahead as if nothing has happened.

Which only gets him so far. Soon, as he slowly begins to unpack his grief, he finds himself surrounded by the trappings of a life he never truly understood: nice house, nice clothes, nice car. Now he wants none of it, and his only way to freedom is to destroy everything. Before he gets there, though, he unburdens himself in a series of long confessional letters to the company whose vending machine malfunctioned in the hospital where Julia had just died, depriving him of Peanut M&Ms. That company’s lone customer-service representative, Karen (Watts), is profoundly moved by these sweet, inappropriate (and inappropriately funny) missives, and soon their respective lives become intertwined. She’s a single mother with a troubled son, Chris (Lewis), and Davis – with his myriad problems – may be just the crazy mentor that the boy needs.

First, though, the mallet. And here’s where the film falters. Davis’ desire to rid himself of his materialistic past leads him on an odyssey of demolition (hence the title), that is both actual (breaking down walls) and metaphorical (breaking down his life). The problem is that it’s an obvious metaphor, and not easy to sustain in any sort of interesting way over the 100-minute running time of the movie. We get it, you see, and long for a novel treatment of Davis’ pain halfway through. Still, each and every actor is compellingly watchable, and there are many genuinely touching moments between them. In spite of the clunky script, I found myself deeply affected by the final scenes. Overall, then, I would recommend the film, even with its strained central conceit.

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