8 out of 10
Jake Gyllenhaal as Davis Mitchell
Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée
It’s not a particularly original observation that people present one front to the world and another to their private lives with our true selves lying somewhere in between. How true that is varies from individual to individual, but the real value of it where art is concerned is that feels true, whether it actually is or not. It certainly feels true to Davis Mitchell (Gylenhaal), who appears to have everything a person could want – a high paying job, a beautiful and thoughtful wife (Lind), all the physical conveniences a person could want – while slowly becoming more and more detached from all of those things. The fact that this is a starting point many, many, many storytellers have used before isn’t necessarily a drawback provided the current singer can make a real song out of it. Thankfully, Jean-Marc Vallée’s Demolition has a keen eye for character and comedy amid all the existential rubble it shifts, offering up an entertaining if shallow meditation on grief and realization.
The grief is also Davis’ when his wife dies suddenly in a car crash, throwing his detachment into stark relief and sending him careening into introspective self-destruction. And while it is a path many, many others have trod before, the decision to make the metaphorical explicit actually gives Vallée a rich tapestry to pull something – if not new – at least newish from. Gyllenhaal is completely in his comfort zone as the slowly-unraveling Davis, particularly in the character’s newfound and frequently-inadvertent honesty. Playing a character who says inept or inappropriate but truthful things is also nothing new for Gyllenhaal, but he does it well and as with Demolition itself, it is the skill with which it covers the familiar that the real pleasure is found.
It is in that spirit of newfound honesty that Davis begins to pour out his inner thoughts in letters to the customer service department of a vending machine company which stole his quarters… and begins to get responses back. And it is in the interplay between Davis and the lonely customer service employee (Watts) that Vallée’s real skill comes out. While the contrivance of having the letters answered by just the person to help him comes unraveled if dwelled on too much, the reality of it in the moment plays perfectly within writer Bryan Sipe’s script, propelled by Vallée’s surprisingly-deft hand with comedy. If Demolition has a major flaw it’s that there isn’t enough Watts in it, as she increasingly becomes more of a mechanism for getting Davis together with her teenage son (Lewis) than a character in her own right.
Nor can the film completely escape its origins. A film about grief means that it must accept the journey beginning from some unifying moment of clarity and must continue to another in order to dramatize a moment of catharsis. Nor is it just the set up as the film dives deep into the well of the upper class and privileged being the most self-deluded and needing the clarity of workers to help them find truth. Which means, for all the little surprises along the way, we always know where Demolition is headed. On the other hand, like a megalomaniacal supervillain once said, it’s the little things which make life worth living and if few of the ideas in Demolition are particularly original, they are useful and interesting, a fact spoken to by their longevity and the quality of the stories which have been built upon them.