Movie Review: 'Demolition' (2015)

A lot of how you receive “Demolition” depends on the kind of mood you are in. If you happen to be in a quirky frame of mind, director Jean-Marc Vallee’s follow-up to “Wild” will leave you feeling…a lot of things. There is something to be said for a movie that can take us to various emotional realms and “Demolition” does that without over tipping its hand.

It is a strange movie that much is certain. It is too somber to be funny and too indie to be considered mainstream, dramatic fluff.

Jake Gyllenhaal stars as an investment banker who loses his wife, Julia (Heather Lind), in a car accident they are both involved in. This all occurs within the opening minutes of the film. In a shocking reaction to this massive loss, Davis (Gyllenhaal) expresses no grief.

In fact, he registers no emotional response to it, whatsoever. The mystery is whether that is because he does not care, is in shock or is incapable of expressing such strong emotion due to a personality disorder.

Davis is confused himself and in the interim, he turns his focus to writing complaint letters to the company that’s vending machine malfunctioned at the hospital. The letters become his effusive outlet for sharing his innermost thoughts, along with detailing his daily frustrations.

Reading them is customer service rep Karen (Naomi Watts). She is a single mom, raising a young son, Chris (Judah Lewis). When Davis is not busy tearing down the things around him “to see how they work”, he is getting deeper involved with the mother/son duo.

As an escape from the real world, Karen and her son become his safe haven. While in the real world, Julia’s father (Chris Cooper) and Davis’ boss is struggling with his outward grief and frustration over his son-in-law’s bizarre antics. He wants to do something to honor his daughter and secure her legacy. It is clear that he and Davis disagree on how to do that.
Bryan Sipe’s script is packed with a lot of interesting characters and he manages to weave them together in a way that avoids feeling forced. It is a bravura accomplishment. Similarly Jean-Marc Vallee finds a better narrative to use his signature scene spliced, time jumps. Where it was wholly distractive in “Wild”, all of the chaos unfolding on-screen in “Demolition” makes the jump cuts manifest with straightforward gusto.

Contrary to what the promotion surrounding it suggests, “Demolition” does not center on Davis destroying his home, in one scene after another. That plot point is a much smaller element of a broader story.

The dismantling works as an appropriate analogy for Davis stripping himself down to see what is inside. He is as confounded by his lack of emotion as those around him. So he tries to get to the source of his emotional void by using a physical expression of his struggle to achieve this. 

It is also worth noting, that “Demolition” is not a romantic drama either. This is not a movie about a widower moving on with another woman within a week of his wife passing. This is about two people going through things, who need each other during a random time and place in their lives.

Davis’ relationship with Karen never veers into particularly inappropriate territory. There is an innocent nature to their bond that maintains the fiber of each character.

While the soundtrack is overwhelming at times, it finds a profound selection in the evocative “La Boheme” as performed by Charles Aznavour. It is a pivotal song choice that plays into two key scenes, one of which the entire movie has built towards. The result is stirring. Without that music, one has to wonder if they would have hit with the same resonance. Instinct says, no.

Jake Gyllenhaal gives another terrific performance that includes the nailing of the always difficult, voice-over narration. He does not fight Davis’ scripted peculiarities, instead embracing the strange skin of a guy who is hard to sympathize with on paper. In doing so, Gyllenhaal secures the character’s watch-ability; keeping you on the hook.

Naomi Watts and Judah Lewis balance out the narrative with assured performances. While Chris Cooper pulls at the heart strings as Julia’s devastated dad.

There is more to “Demolition” than meets the eye. It is about a man pressing rewind on his marriage. Not by remembering the chronological details but the little moments of tenderness that encompassed it.

Whether intended or not, Vallee also finds a way to hold viewers off from feeling certain emotions until its character can and that is a swiftly underrated and crucial achievement. Even more impressive is that in the face of its idiosyncrasies, “Demolition” manages to not implode and that is a staggering accomplishment. Rating: 7/10

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