Demolition

'Demolition' movie poster

Release: Friday, April 8, 2016

[Theater]

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.

Screen Shot 2016-04-21 at 8.23.09 PM

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.

Rated: R

Running Time: 100 mins.

Quoted: “There was love between me and Julia. I just didn’t take care of it.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

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16 thoughts on “Demolition

  1. I haven’t seen this yet, and based on what I’ve read and heard (here and elsewhere) I’m not sure if I’ll bother. It’s weird because I like Gyllenhaal and Cooper, plus I enjoyed the director’s last two films, but not to the point that I’d rush out and see anything he makes from now on. I feel so unenthusiastic about him that I probably need to rewatch either Dallas Buyers Club or Wild to figure out what I liked about them in the first place (other than the acting). But your review reinforces the ‘meh’!

  2. We were incredibly moved by this when we saw it at TIFF in September. I thought, like in Wild, Jean-marc Vallee told a story about someone finding an unconventional way of dealing with loss. I felt like he did a better job in Demolition of taking the audience along for the ride though. Where we can feel like we as an audience got something out of the process too.

  3. Agreed, Tom. Is it possible to create a story that captivates our hearts without a single likable character? I suppose, but Demolition doesn’t even come remotely close.

    • I actually thought the film had some people to latch onto; Naomi Watts, Judah Lewis and Chris Cooper all play characters we can get behind (or better than Gyllenhaal’s). I’m struggling right now to list titles where few, if any, characters were likable and yet the film itself was very much so. Um, from what I hear Trainspotting could be one such film? (Yes, I haven’t seen that yet. 😉 ).

      For me, it was the nature of the character. You’ve gotta remember Gyllenhaal played Lou Bloom, by all accounts a person who becomes so far gone there’s no saving him. Oh well, perhaps the next Vallée picture will be better.

  4. Hmmm, the trailer for this looked all over the place (a bit like that Jennifer Lawrence joint Joy) which is why my anticipation was so low. Looks like it’s the dictionary definition of average…

    • I ended up liking Joy, so I can’t really make a comparison there but I get what you mean. This is quite average, but not simply because the story’s shit. There’s something interesting about the way the seemingly taboo topic of mental illness is approached here. As Matt above notes, there’s a way to feel for these people here but I just couldn’t do it myself. . .

  5. Awesome opening paragraph mate, I thought that was fucking spot on and really well observed. Its a pity this movie seems to have destroyed his streak, though I’d still love to see it just to see Gyllenhaal. Unfortunately this will be another wait-for-DVD situation for me!

    • Hey thanks for saying that man. I always seem to get excited talking about the guy. He’s gotta be one of my favorite working actors at the moment. Dude is great. Even if the material he’s working with isn’t as much. I wouldn’t consider this particular role a major issue or anything, but it’s the first time in a while Gyllenhaal’s presence alone wasn’t enough to save the film

      • Its hard not to be enthused by his work! Ever since Donnie Darko he has mainly worked on good movies and his abilities are incredible. He saved Southpaw for me. I doubt this one will make it to our theatres anyway, and it sounds like it won’t be a huge loss

  6. Missed this in my theater (was only around for two weeks). Not mad about it, even though I love Gyllenhaal. I’ll catch one day on demand, but I know my thoughts are gonna be very average on it.

    • Yeah, can’t say this is one of those you’ll be kicking youreslf for missing afterwards. I wasn’t big on it, anyway, but it has got its fans too of course. Check it out and see what you think man

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