“Demolition” is an offbeat movie that delves deep in its exploration of grief and human relationships. It’s a decidedly adult drama about self-discovery, at times considerably emotional and slightly subversive. This is complex filmmaking at its finest, and this movie spoke to me. There’s a lot going on here; so much that I can’t wait to watch the movie again. I’m sure it will get even richer with subsequent viewings.
After his wife Julia (Heather Lind) is tragically killed in a car crash where he’s in the passenger seat, Davis (Jake Gyllenhaal) begins to fall apart. His father-in-law Phil (Chris Cooper) watches as Davis’ life unravels (and weighty secrets are gradually unearthed). A handwritten complaint letter to a vending machine company over a $1.25 refund for a pack of peanut M&Ms leads to Davis’ path crossing with pothead Karen (Naomi Watts) and her sexually confused son (Judah Lewis). Soon after, a strange friendship ensues and Davis literally begins to tear apart his former life. He becomes obsessed with dismantling everything in site, from espresso machines, bathroom doors, clocks, and ultimately his own memories.
This film is completely self-aware yet not cliched. (Believe me, I was ready to start rolling my eyes when Davis drives past an uprooted tree, but then we hear his voice-over blurt out that “everything has become a metaphor”). This is just one of the many perceptive aspects of the movie that thoroughly worked for me. I found it easy to relate to the story and there was something in each of the characters that rang true in my own personal experiences. Nothing feels forced — even the overt symbolism — because it’s presented in a way that elicits empathy and is wholly engaging. The authenticity keeps the story from sinking into a commonplace melodrama.
The main reason I loved this film is due to the brilliant screenplay. It’s wordy, insightful, intelligent and hands-down gets my vote for my favorite (and best written) screenplay so far this year. (I can’t believe it was written by Bryan Sipe, the same writer who adapted the Nicholas Sparks novel “The Choice” for the screen).
There are so many things that worked in this film: the killer soundtrack, the all-around solid performances from the cast (Gyllenhaal continues his streak as the new master of the edgy performance), the style of the poignant vignettes of pleasant memories of the lead character’s former life, and especially the story exposition through letter writing. When Davis begins unloading his grief and life story in his letters, the truth begins to emerge. When he writes “I don’t think I really knew who she was” about his dead wife, you get a real glimpse of honesty about his marriage and his character. I loved, loved, LOVED the storytelling device of letter writing.
Hat’s off to director Jean-Marc Vallée (“Dallas Buyers Club,” “Wild”); he’s created a fantastic work of art. Memorable scenes are everywhere, from a cathartic solo dancing bit on a bustling New York City street to the actual bulldozing of a window-heavy house to a very moving (and funny) scene about gender identity in a hardware store. One of my favorite scenes is when Davis, numb with grief, volunteers to do some work with a demolition crew. While working he steps on a nail. At first Davis howls in pain but his screams quickly turn to gleeful laughter as he realizes that yes, he still can feel pain. There are so many affecting scenes just like this, many filled with gratifying emotional surprises. It’s painfully beautiful.
“Demolition” excels in telling its narrative of loneliness, self-destruction, shock, grief and emptiness in a tender and realistic way (and even adds a bit of dark humor to the mix). The movie feels raw, gut-wrenching, believable and authentic.
As I finished writing this review, I actually just said aloud: “damn, I really loved this movie.”
“Repairing the human heart is like repairing an automobile. You have to take everything apart, just examine everything, and then you can put it all back together.”
This advice – given to Davis Mitchell (Jake Gyllenhall) by his father-in-law, Phil (Chris Cooper) – is the engine that drives “Demolition,” the newest film from director Jean-Marc Vallée (“Wild” and “Dallas Buyers Club“). Davis is a successful investment banker working for Phil’s company who seemingly has it all: the Porsche, the flashy modern house in the suburbs, the beautiful wife, the designer clothes, and an impressive office perched high up in a gleaming skyscraper. In an instant, a car accident takes the life of his wife, Julia (Heather Lind), and suddenly, Davis doesn’t know how to act. As a human being, Davis knows that he should be grieving for his loss, but in truth he can’t feel anything. His co-workers, parents, and in-laws all expect him to be overcome with sadness, but he isn’t. He’s numb, and he admits to himself and to his doctor that he’s felt that way for a long time. Davis wants to feel something about Julia’s death, and he feels like he’s broken because he doesn’t.
Part of Davis’s problem is that he realizes that he never really knew Julia. He married her because – in his mind – that’s what society expected of him and it was the easiest thing to do. Now that she’s gone, he doesn’t miss her but he’s trying to. So he takes Phil’s advice quite literally and begins “taking apart his marriage” by disassembling or destroying the shiny things he and Julia accumulated during their marriage. Along the way, he strikes up a unique friendship with Karen Moreno (Naomi Watts) who is drawn to Davis and his soul-searching honesty. It is through his new relationship with Karen and her teenage son Chris (Judah Lewis) that we see Davis begin to find again what he feels that he lost.
“Demolition” is an expertly-crafted reflection on the nature of marriage and the value we give to our lives and our loved ones. Who is this person we’ve chosen to live our life with? Are we appreciating our spouse for who she or he is, or do we see that person as another thing we’ve collected; a status symbol, a way to signify to ourselves and others that we’ve made it and that we matter? And even if we married for the “right” reasons – for love – what will happen to us if we don’t take care of that love? It is these very human questions that “Demolition” explores and attempts to answer, and I adored every minute of it.
Jake Gyllenhaal isn’t just cast well as Davis. He OWNS this role. I’m not sure anyone else could have pulled it off as well as he did: Davis’s mien may be inscrutable, but he’s not; he may appear cold-hearted, but he’s not; he may seem unaffected by his wife’s death, but he’s not. He’s struggling with his humanity in a world where he’s learned to place far too much value on facades and the trappings of success without learning what it means to live richly. Gyllenhaal’s nuanced performance perfectly captures the dichotomy between how the world views him and how he views the world. This is expressed not only through what’s been left on the screen for us to see, but also through his inner monologue, which we hear expressed as a series of letters written by Davis to a customer service department for a vending machine company. This technique for expressing voice-over narration may sound gimmicky on paper, but in execution it works beautifully.
As Karen and Phil, Watts and Cooper are also excellent as usual. But apart from Gyllenhaal, the other standout in this movie is Judah Lewis. As Chris – a young adult confused about his own life, sexuality, and place in the world — Lewis serves as Davis’s mentee and partner-in-crime. Take it from me: this young man is an actor to watch.
In its contemplation of big ideas about marriage, society, love, and the ways in which we seek to define ourselves to others, “Demolition” acquits itself admirably. It’s interesting, it’s thought-provoking, and it’s very, very human.