Director: Jean-Marc Vallee
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Naomi Watts, Heather Lind and Chris Cooper
Running Time: 101 minutes
Release Date: April 29th
Demolition has a certain rhythm to it. We meet Jake Gyllenhaal’s Davis Mitchell as he, slumped down in his seat, asks his wife if it’s okay to lower the orchestral music playing in their car, to speak to his boss and father-in-law on the phone. They have a brief, mellow, conversation, which finishes just before another car collides with theirs, killing his wife and leaving him without a scratch. There is a fuzz for a moment or two, and some beats break through, and Davis awakes in the hospital.
Following her death, Davis, a typical movie business-guy, who gets up at five AM to jog and shave his chest, who doesn’t speak to people on the train, who is highly successful but totally disinterested, goes on a journey of self-actualisation through self-destruction. Because that is what movie businessmen do when it comes to this sort of thing, and while it’s not without its strengths, Demolition isn’t particularly novel.
The journey begins when his peanut M&M’s get stuck in the hospital vending machine shortly after his wife’s death, and he responds by sending an overly detailed, intricate letter describing the details of his life and recent loss to customer service at the vending machine company. Once that letter becomes a series he finally gets a response (from the excellent, but maybe underused Naomi Watts), which leads to him becoming wrapped up in the relationships of a small, troubled family unit.
In the meantime he has begun to dismantle anything he can get his hands on, as he is finally, he says, noticing them and the sounds they make.
The story of the numb, corporate sellout finally noticing the world around him by bucking the trend and disrespecting authority is not a new one, and that is this film’s main flaw. It’s satisfying to see, and Gyllenhaal is good at being both irritating and endearing in his detachment, but there is very little new happening here, and none of its other strengths really manage to rescue it from the lack of originality or direction. It is let down by its scattered grasping for profundity, never really settling on its intended message, and this serves only to take away from the talented acting and storytelling at hand here.
Director Jean-Marc Vallee builds a world with sound. This is where the rhythm comes in. The passage of time is shown with the crunching of dead flowers being scraped off the counter, we hear doors creak and fridges drip, and the soundtrack is basically all diegetic. Davis has begun to notice these things, and so they are delivered crisply to the audience.
Similarly, while films like Fight Club and American Beauty, that feature outward emotional turmoil in the face of corporate and middle class America, imply a larger shared mentality, and at times celebrate the destructive elements they claim are in all of us, the problems Davis faces are all his own, and while Jake Gyllenhaal delivers a grounded, emotional performance, he also seems quite unhinged at times, and always just a little bit distant. Following the death of his wife, he meets with her father (Chris Cooper, when is he not great?) at a bar. The father-in-law comments on the price of the drink, before a short emotional speech about his daughter and the loss they have both suffered, reaching out to this man he has mentored, we learn, for years. Davis appears to listen, then notes that the drinks are expensive because of the atmosphere, and says nothing more.
Demolition exists like a song, and tells its story with subtlety, through sights and sounds Davis is only beginning to notice, it reaches peaks and slows down again repeatedly. But despite the strong cast, and world it builds, once it has ended that’s it – the stories are finished in a fitting way, but perhaps not satisfyingly so. Its journey is a grounded portrayal of grief, but never reaches any emotional highs or lows, despite being genuinely quite funny, and often rather sad. Worth a watch for taking a low key, fulfilling route with a subject matter that is often dramatic and negative. But it honestly never wanders too far from the form, much less destroys it to build something new.