Rest in pieces
In Demolition, Jake Gyllenhaal plays Davis Mitchell, a Wall Street banker working for his father-in-law Phil (Chris Cooper), even though he never thought he’d be the kind of guy who carries a briefcase.
Davis shares this insight into his diffident personality in a letter to a vending machine company. He’s writing to complain about losing $1.25 when one of their machines failed to dispense the M&M’s he’d paid for. The machine was in a hospital, Davis writes, and he was very hungry. And, oh yes, his wife had just died.
Davis’ wife Julia (Heather Lind) was killed in one of those scenes beloved of moviemakers, the sudden, out-of-nowhere automobile accident. These vehicular jump-scares are a cliché so hallowed and hoary that it’s hard to remember the last one we saw that didn’t make us roll our eyes and think, “Jeez, not again!” But neither writer Brian Sipe nor director Jean-Marc Vallée are above slamming us with it one more time.
Demolition follows this cliché with a development so quirky and off the wall that for a while it passes for a peculiar kind of insight into Davis’ psyche. He fixates on that elusive bag of M&M’s to the point of writing to the vending machine company—then using the letter, and several that follow, to explore his relationship with Julia, still formless and developing when she died.
Then comes another off-the-wall turn: His letters touch the heart of Karen Moreno (Naomi Watts), the company’s “customer service representative”—a diplomatic way of saying she’s a warehouse office worker in a dead-end job. Karen is so moved that, rather than just saying “Oh, what the hell” and sending Davis his damn buck-and-a-quarter, she calls him at 2 a.m. to ask if he needs someone to talk to. A friendship develops that draws in Karen’s son Chris (Judah Lewis), a smart but troubled teenager questioning his own sexuality and searching for a father figure.
Meanwhile, Davis takes a bit of advice from his father-in-law Phil (“Repairing a human heart is like repairing an automobile; you have to take everything apart, examine everything, then you can put it all back together.”) quite literally. He begins dismantling things—his refrigerator, the restroom stalls at the office. He graduates to destroying things, as if by smashing his own house to smithereens he can somehow reconstruct his own life.
Grief makes people do strange things, I suppose. In filmmakers, so does pretentiousness. Generally, it’s good to grant artists their working premise; from that can come insight, epiphany, revelation. But somewhere along the line Demolition simply leaves planet Earth, and even these earnest and estimable actors can’t lure us into the flying saucer with them.
Maybe it comes when Davis takes Chris out playing with a handgun, then dons a Kevlar jacket and invites this clearly slightly-messed-up kid to shoot him. Or maybe it’s when Davis buys a bulldozer on eBay to help with demolishing his house, something nobody seems to notice, ask about or object to.
Whenever it comes, we begin at last to suspect that Sipe and Vallée are selling us a big, fat, piping-hot load of art-house malarkey. And that suspicion, once entertained, will not go away.