Through the success of his Oscar-nominated films Dallas Buyers Club and Wild, Quebecois filmmaker Jean-Marc Vallée has cultivated a reputation for compelling dramas about individuals in crisis. This thematic thread continues with his newest film Demolition, starring Jake Gyllenhaal as a man coping with the tragic death of his wife. Through this introspective narrative, Vallée once again provides a typically character-driven showcase for his actors. But this time, he experiments with tone to deliver a curious mix of comedy and drama.
Gyllenhaal plays Davis Mitchell in the film, a successful investment banker whose stable life gets shaken up when a fatal car accident kills his wife. As he recovers from the shock, he comes to the realization of his own detachment from life, feeling little sorrow over his loss. As a way of regaining some passion, Davis becomes willfully unhinged, even obsessing over a broken vending machine. Writing deeply personal complaint letters to the vending company, he catches the attention of Karen (Naomi Watts), a customer service representative and single mother. Soon they decide to meet, and Davis finally finds the catalyst that may help him move on from the memories of his wife.
By now we all know the concept of the five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance – but Demolition approaches the condition from an entirely different perspective. Through the apathetic Davis, the narrative ponders the effect of death on someone who is dead inside themselves. Much like he did with Wild, Vallée makes generous use of voice over narration to give us a unique peek into the head space of a man devoid of passion.
The result is a film that’s often abrasive at times, yet finds empathy in its characters through its brilliant ensemble. Indeed, while Vallée’s recent works share common themes, Demolition confirms that the defining characteristic of his filmmaking is his ability to get great performances from his actors. As Karen, Naomi Watts is an endearing presence, exuding tenderness and sincerity. Likewise, Chris Cooper – playing Davis’ father-in-law and boss – is a model of fatherly concern, the weight of his loss etched in his mournful face. His scenes with Gyllenhaal are some of the best in the film, as both men struggle to come to terms with the tragedy and their complicated relationship with each other.
It’s Jake Gyllenhaal who impresses the most however, deftly handling one of his trickiest roles yet. His character is fundamentally unlikable, with a cold-hearted attitude that borders on misanthropy. Through shrewd comic timing and effortless charm however, he uses Davis’ frankness to deliver big laughs and suggest a soul that’s worthy of redemption.
The fleeting moments of brilliance are certainly a credit to the actors, as Vallée’s direction and Bryan Swipe’s screenplay often get in the way. As soon as Davis meets Karen, you can immediately sense the gears working to wrap up the story in a neat bow and comfort the audience. But the optimism is at odds with the film’s otherwise acerbic tone and tentative attempts at existentialism. Still, I’d be lying if I denied the cathartic power of the ending, but the overall effect of this Demolition is less of a knockout.