Written by Bryan Sipe / Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée / Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Naomi Watts and Judah Lewis
Davis Mitchell: I’m starting to notice things I never saw before. Well, maybe I saw them. I just wasn’t paying attention.
DEMOLITION, the latest in a hot streak of films by Canadian auteur Jean-Marc Vallée (DALLAS BUYERS CLUB, WILD) tackles grief in many an unexpected way. It does so by allowing for grief to manifest itself any which way it would like and then just invites us to sit back for the ride. Based on an original screenplay by novice writer Bryan Sipe, DEMOLITION has no clear path to enlightenment, which could have been a confused mess in a lesser actor’s hands, but fortunately, we have Jake Gyllenhaal to guide us there.
Gyllenhaal plays Davis Mitchell, a hedge fund manager in New York City who works for his father-in-law (Chris Cooper). He’s managed to carve out a pretty great life for himself, or at least pretty great by today’s standard of what it means to be successful. In addition to his great job, he has a beautiful wife (Heather Lind) and they live in a house in the suburbs direct out of an architectural digest. And within minutes of the film starting, all of that security is ripped away from him when his wife dies in a car crash, which he walks away from unscathed.
Davis has no idea what to do with himself, where to put himself, how to feel. He can’t even force himself to cry, which leads him to the realization that he never loved his wife. Suddenly, nothing he knew makes sense to him and when he can’t figure out how to fix something, like a leaky fridge or a squeaky door, his impulse leads him to tear it apart instead. An unfortunate incident involving a hospital vending machine and a dangling peanut M&M’s leads him to connect with a customer service representative named Karen Moreno (Naomi Watts) and he finally finds in this total stranger an outlet to express what he’s feeling, even if what he’s feeling is nothing at all.
At one stage, Davis points out that everything around him has taken on metaphoric meaning, and one could easily take a step back and say the same thing about this screenplay. As you watch Davis discover a newfound passion for demolishing houses, it is very clear, albeit not painfully so, that this is just misplaced anger and avoidance, that he is tearing down the walls (literally) of the life he had spent so much time building without quite realizing why. While Sipe’s script is plain in its presentation, it is the nuances in the dialogue and the randomness of its trajectory that allow for it to rise above its overtly symbolic nature. Again, credit must be given to Gyllenhaal for catching all of that nuance and delivering it to us with an eerie comfort and ease.
For a film about grief, DEMOLITION isn’t very sad. In fact, it is oddly humourous yet never overly macabre. In the end, my one true complaint about the film is likely exactly what it set out to be. As engaging and oddly entertaining as it is, the film isn’t very emotionally involving. The first major pang to the heart comes just as the film is coming to a close. It is only at the moment that Davis allows himself to feel for his loss that we really connect with him as a character. That said, he was just keeping us at arm’s length like everyone else in his life the entire time. This is a pretty risky gamble for Vallée to take and one that I’m glad to say he pulls off brilliantly.