Release: Friday, April 8, 2016
Written by: Bryan Sipe
Directed by: Jean-Marc Vallée
Jake Gyllenhaal has played a variety of oddballs in his time. He’s navigated his way carefully through a maze of mental illness — including, but certainly not limited to, sociopathy, obsession and depression — and often bravely inhabited characters who we’re almost dared to embrace at the expense of our own conscience. But even when he’s playing characters who are either lowlives or who find themselves at low points in their lives, rarely do we regret spending time watching him.
Alas, that is the case in Demolition, the new film from Québécois director Jean-Marc Vallée. I suppose the good news is that I can’t remember the last time I was able to say Gyllenhaal failed to captivate me, wasted my time or anything similarly negative. I’m not talking about a movie in which he starred or had a juicy supporting part, but something he appeared in. That’s quite a streak this utterly directionless and ultimately pointless black comedy has just broken. If I were the movie, I’d feel pretty bad about that, because while Gyllenhaal has certainly been better, the fact the film passes without significance isn’t entirely his fault.
Demolition is the story of a successful investment banker who seems to mentally check out of reality following a traumatic event in which he and his wife are involved in a bad car accident. Rather than breaking down into tears or exhibiting any of the symptoms someone in his position would typically exhibit, particularly in the immediate aftermath, his Davis Mitchell feels nothing. He seemingly moves on with his life as if nothing happened. We, the appalled, are challenged to interpret whether his behavior is something indicative of some kind of mental deficiency, or if he’s just a coldhearted bastard. (Either way, there’s something wrong with him.)
Bryan Sipe’s talky, introspective but ultimately forgettable script pivots around a rather crass catalytic event in which Davis — and this is just hours after his beloved Julia (Heather Lind) has succumbed to injuries sustained in the accident — begins writing a series of letters to the company that owns the vending machine that just screwed him out of a pack of peanut M&M’s. I know. Life is unfair. For awhile we’re lead to believe that these letters are just a way for him to vent, that perhaps he’s just this bad at expressing anguish. After all, grief is grief and there aren’t really any rules for dealing with this shit.
But then we learn that Davis’ letters are being received by a customer service rep named Karen Moreno (Naomi Watts, less annoying than usual) — a customer service rep in desperate need of a raise because she’s seemingly the only one who ever pays attention to such outmoded forms of communication. Complaint letters being read. Pah! What a quaint idea. The set-up is so serendipitous it’s ridiculous. Maybe if Davis were a character we could actually get behind, the fact Karen’s entirely too trusting of a strange man might not be something we’d notice. After all, Karen’s essentially a polar opposite to Davis, a kind-hearted soul who’s struggling financially as a single mother raising a bratty kid who can’t stay unsuspended from school.
Davis finds comfort in divulging intensely personal tidbits about his marriage and his childhood through letters to someone he’s never met. He’s also further alienating himself from the brutal truth of being made a widower at the ripe age of 30-something. What begins as a pen-pal relationship soon turns into clandestine phone calls whose tones range from stalker-ish to flirtatious; meanwhile Julia’s parents are still trying to get over their loss. Those phone calls that then turn into face-to-face meet-ups aren’t the extent of Davis’ ‘descent.’ (I put that word in quotes because Davis himself admits he didn’t even know Julia that well, other than that marrying her was an easy thing to do. So, good chance this guy was insufferable even when she was alive.)
Promotional material for Demolition seems fixated on the character physically destroying things. There’s the clip of him taking a bulldozer to his posh, angular, suburban abode and a bathroom stall at his office lying in pieces on the floor. By the time we actually get around to these moments we’re so numb to what we’re seeing they don’t really register. There’s a faint whiff of tragedy underlining Davis’ increasingly absurd behavior but it’s all for naught because the story and the character haven’t given us any reason to feel empathy; this is quite literally 100 minutes of watching Gyllenhaal getting free license to go willy-nilly with a sledgehammer and other construction materials.
In fact it becomes so difficult to identify with Davis we end up feeling terrible for his father-in-law, Phil (Chris Cooper) as Phil continues to give Davis entirely too much leeway around the office. (Does he have much choice? Um, how about firing him?) Perhaps the only behavior Davis displays that we can understand is his lack of ability to stay invested in work-related projects. In an early scene, Davis is recounting what it was like getting to know Phil in the early stages of his relationship. Not one to mince words, Phil shouts down from the top of a flight of stairs, “I don’t like you Davis.” Yeah, no kidding. We’re with you on that one, Phil. Fortunately for us, we figured that out within about an hour. You had to endure this man’s sociopathic behavior for years.
Recommendation: Demolition revolves around a through-and-through unlikable protagonist, which isn’t a problem in and of itself. But the story also asks us to start taking sides (with him) as Davis begins a new relationship — to the film’s credit, one that’s only ever platonic — with a customer service rep who decides she likes the way he writes. Everything just feels so false. Jean-Marc Vallée has dealt with the selfish, brooding, sociopathic and self-destructive type before but this one really pushes limits. One for actor/director completionists only.
Running Time: 100 mins.
Quoted: “There was love between me and Julia. I just didn’t take care of it.”
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