After his wife dies in a horrific car accident, a 30-something guy goes off the rails, regressing to a destructive childlike state in Demolition. Davis, the distant and unsatisfied financial manager played by Jake Gyllenhaal, appears to live a great life, but the loss of his wife stokes smoldering resentments into an angry bonfire. Avoiding grief and true acceptance of what his adulthood has become, Davis embraces abrasive, superficial honesty as he searches for connections that eluded him in marriage.
In the hands of director Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club, Wild), the drama has a comic tinge that veers from appealing to off-putting and back again. Davis embraces a new “smash it up” mindset as an open embrace of life. His childlike desire to take everything apart, however, has a distressing desperation rather than a gleeful punkish verve. The intensity of his destructive tendencies increases, but empathetic ties to Davis are elusive, despite effective and committed work from Gyllenhaal and the rest of the cast.
Our window to the guy’s soul is a set of letters expressing regrets about his loveless marriage and lame job (working for his father-in-law, no less), ostensibly written to complain about a faulty hospital vending machine. These unusually confessional missives reel in Karen (Naomi Watts), the customer service rep on the receiving end. Equally troubled and lonely, Karen reaches out to make a not quite professional connection.
This central contrivance is an oddly effective communication of the loneliness and sense of imperviousness that define Davis, but it’s also silly enough to nearly capsize the story in its first act. Davis’ mid-life crisis recalls American Beauty and Fight Club (“I am Davis’ sense of resentment”), especially as his letters begin to include wide-eyed, inane observations about the world. He actually writes “Everything is a metaphor,” perhaps realizing as he does so that the idea doesn’t need to be shared.
Vallée maintains a sense of distance from his lead character, as if to emphasize the film doesn’t endorse the dumb stuff Davis is writing, but that in turn makes for a cold story. The “well-to-do guy hits problems with a hammer” story angle is also simply difficult to put up with. Sure, we can all see that the house formerly shared by Davis and his wife is a chilly modernist tumor in an otherwise welcoming neighborhood—and therefore, yep, a metaphor—but watching him literally tear it down is still a bore. Can you put up with several scenes of destruction long enough for Davis to realize that he’s engaging in more superficially selfish behavior than ever? I would envy such saintly patience.
What Davis really needs is a mediating presence. While Chris Cooper is rock-solid playing his sour and authoritarian father-in-law, it falls to Watts and Judah Lewis, playing her teenage son Chris, to generate new current to stimulate Davis. Both actors are excellent, though Karen is such a dishrag of a character that the film quickly stops paying attention to her in order to focus on Chris.
The older guy’s veneer of raw honesty (and, OK, his wanton lack of impulse control) endears Davis to the young man, who is experiencing difficult transitions of his own as his adult sexuality begins to develop. In many ways Chris is more of an adult than Davis, but he still needs strong parenting.
I almost turned around on Demolition thanks to a scene in which Davis instructs Chris on the proper use of the word “fuck.” It’s a great word, he says, but the kid isn’t doing it right. “If you use it too much,” he explains, “it loses its value, and you sound stupid.” (This is a note many young screenwriters would do well to heed.)
Other advice dispensed by Davis isn’t nearly as sharp, and Demolition telegraphs a plot development that could have been far more powerful if handled with more delicacy. Even so, evolutions in Chris’s story are moving. Constantly focused on Davis, Demolition gives the impression that it is looking at Chris only with peripheral vision, which is a shame. He’s the film’s most interesting character.
To its credit, some threads in the film’s great swirl of coincidence and contrivance are allowed to play out in organic fashion. The relationship between Davis and Karen is never pushed into a forced false climax, and Karen’s own problems are revealed through action rather than being detailed in the excruciating detail we have to suffer from Davis. The novelistic potential of this character set is revealed when Demolition relaxes, but far too often it goes for twee and clever in lieu of genuine connections.
2 out of 5