DIR: Jean-Marc Vallée • WRI: Bryan Sipe • PRO: Kevin Feige • DOP: Trent Opaloch • ED: Jeffrey Ford, Matthew Schmidt • DES: Owen Paterson • MUS: Henry Jackman • CAST: Jake Gyllenhaal, Naomi Watts, Heather Linds
With Jean-Marc Vallée’s previous release being 2014’s Wild, the story of one woman’s journey to rediscover herself, its indistinguishability to this year’s Demolition lingers throughout various scenes of Jake Gyllenhaal literally and metaphorically disassembling parts of his life. This is not an entirely fair criticism of Demolition, for stories of mid-life crises are recycled ad nauseam (Birdman, Lost in Translation, American Beauty, Falling Down, Hannah and her Sisters, 8½, Last Tango in Paris, I could go on) and so trying to recapture the novelty such a story had is a difficulty in of itself.
Yet, somehow, Vallée does, by seamlessly tapping into a cinematic stream of consciousness and on the backbone of its talented cast, Chris Cooper and newcomer Judah Lewis especially, who manage to outshine even the always-excellent Gyllenhaal.
Davis (Jake Gyllenhaal) begins a peculiar means of processing the grief of his recently deceased wife Julia. Inflicted with an aloof apathy precedent to even the fatal car crash, Davis begins a series of semi-formal complaints to a company responsible for a hospital vending machine that failed to dispense his M&Ms. These letters become a cathartic process of his grief and a growing revelation that his rise up Wall Street’s corporate ladder has left him emotionally void and unfulfilled. These letters are also the film’s greatest strength, as Gyllenhaal is at liberty to perform, via voice-over narration, around his lifeless and expressionless physical presence, but also in its ability to jump from place to place, memory to memory, topic to topic, without feeling confusing or strenuous to the viewer, adding a greater dynamic as it playfully inverts the rule of ‘Show. Don’t Tell.’ But Davis receives a reply from the sole worker at customer complaints, Karen (Naomi Watts), who he begins to pursue and befriend, literally demolishing objects of his past with her son (Judah Lewis), in search of something meaningful in his life, which subsequently squanders the twist this film has in treating this time-worn story.
In detailing the synopsis, the story becomes unavoidably kitsch which is the film’s glaring problem. Bryan Sipe’s screenplay doesn’t congeal to the emphatic style and mood Vallée creates in developing Davis’ dejected perspective on reality. During a candlelit dinner with Julia’s parents in their home, when the broken lights literally turn back on after Davis is reinvigorated from a phone call to Karen, the symbolism is so abundant and clichéd that it becomes laughable in how serious the movie commits to these moments, including the titular demolishing.
The icing on the cake comes in the form of Karen introducing Davis to a sweetly content elderly man who sells cannabis on a pier next to a vintage Parisian carousel, which is the only thing Davis wants to repair instead of destroy. You can work out where the story goes from there. Although its saving grace is its cast and Vallée’s adroit direction, Demolition lacks enough originality to draw some vitality into its heavily derivative premise.
15A (See IFCO for details)
Demolition is released 29th April 2016