The way we process grief—or not—is the foundation on which Demolition is built. This oddball little film from Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée (The Dallas Buyers Club; Wild) views the aftermath of tragedy through the distorted lens of both drama and comedy, then takes a sledgehammer to shatter what we think we know about sadness and loss.
Not to belabor the construction/deconstruction metaphor, but that’s what you get from Demolition. Its protagonist, investment banker Davis (Jake Gyllenhaal), loses his wife suddenly in a car crash, then realizes he can’t begin to build a new life for himself until he tears down the old one. This is the movie’s central theme, but scriptwriter Bryan Sipe hammers it home constantly in both dialogue and action, as if afraid we won’t get it—a wrecking-ball approach that threatens to topple quieter scenes that provide more effective moments.
Davis is a Wall Street suit, married to the daughter of his boss at the firm, Phil (Chris Cooper). After Davis survives the crash that kills his wife (she’s driving), he’s bombarded with expressions of grief and commiseration from his in-laws, parents and colleagues. He sleepwalks through all the rituals of death—hospital vigil, funeral, wake—and stuns his co-workers (especially Phil) by coming right back to work.
His only means of opening up turns out to be in a letter of complaint he writes to the manufacturer of a candy-vending machine that stiffed him 25 cents in the hospital. In the course of two or three letters, he expands on the hospital incident to include his views on his job, his life, and whether or not he really loved his wife.
It’s a little odd right away that he would continue to send these letters without being prompted by any response, but we’re meant to believe this is his therapy. Then he does get a response—not in a business letter, but in a late-night phone call from a woman named Karen (Naomi Watts), who’s the entire Customer Service department at the locally owned vending machine company. It’s a little creepy that they start stalking each other at diners and on the subway, but in typical movie fashion, they tell each other intimate truths about themselves simply because they are strangers.
Back at work, Phil tells Davis, “If you want to fix something, you have to take everything apart,” which Davis and the movie take all too literally. Soon, he’s smashing everything to smithereens—his leaky refrigerator, a cappuccino maker, a stall in the bathroom at work, and all of his office equipment. He even pays a neighborhood construction crew to let him help demolish a house. Which leads to the main event, Davis taking Karen’s sullen 15-year-old son Chris (Judah Lewis) on a mission to destroy his own house. (He tells Chris, “We’re taking apart my marriage.”)
The movie is mostly about Davis bonding with Chris. Which is OK, since theirs are probably the most effective scenes. (Karen sort of disappears as an entity; she’s onscreen, but she has less impact on the story.) There’s a nice moment when Davis deconstructs the F-word, explaining to the teen how to wield it more effectively. That said, it’s odd that Chris would start a conversation with Davis about an extremely private and delicate subject while the two of them are out in a public place. (A tool department, natch.)
Continuity can also be a problem. In one weird scene, button-down Davis proves to be handy with a pistol (and just happens to have a flak jacket in the trunk of his car). One baffling encounter turns out to be a dream sequence, which works well enough. But later in the movie, Davis is shown going about his daily routine in the same house he literally bulldozed earlier, as if nothing had happened. It’s kind of disorienting that this doesn’t turn out to be a dream too. Unfortunately, since we’re tipped off to the metaphor right off the (baseball) bat, all the wanton destruction just gets tiresome. This script should have been taken apart more carefully before it reduced the movie to rubble.
**1/2 (out of four)
With Jake Gyllenhaal, Naomi Watts, Chris Cooper, and Judah Lewis. Written by Bryan Sipe. Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée. A Fox Searchlight release. Rated R. 100 minutes.