Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée.
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Naomi Watts, Chris Cooper, Judah Lewis, C.J. Wilson, Polly Draper, James Colby, and Heather Lind.
As an investment banker struggles after losing his wife in a tragic car crash, his increasingly confessional series of letters to a vending machine company catch the attention of a customer service rep with whom he forms an unlikely connection.
Critiquing Jake Gyllenhaal led movies is quickly becoming frustrating. He is one of the most talented actors of our generation (and is in his prime to boot), but seems to be entering a loop where he is picking interesting characters to play, alongside getting to work with skilled directors (in this case it is Jean-Marc Vallée who coached Matthew McConaughey to a Best Actor Oscar victory with the excellent Dallas Buyers Club), only for the projects to pan out with shoddy execution and disappointment.
However, there is still quite a bit to applaud in Demolition, a movie where an investment banker named Davis (Jake Gyllenhaal) becomes emotionally distant and increasingly sociopathic after a tragic car accident takes his wife’s life, yet leaves him unscathed. To be fair, the character doesn’t seem all there from the moment we meet him, coming across cold and uninterested in basic conversation with his lovely lady.
Nevertheless, Davis begins writing complaint letters to a vending machine company’s customer support address, because the machine gypped him out of some peanut M&Ms that he decided to purchase literally seconds after being notified that his wife did not survive (and looking around her hospital deathbed, which is stained with some blood). The metaphors may be painfully obvious, but it doesn’t matter; the idea of someone writing and writing to a customer service representative that may or may not read the scribbled ramblings, (and even if they somehow manage to read them, may not give a fudge about their suffering), because the empathy is palpable. He is lonely with no one to talk to, and venting. Some of the scenes of Gyllenhaal narrating completely irrelevant information about his life and marriage in the complaint letters are actually some of the best in the movie.
Obviously, Gyllenhaal elevates the material hugely, with his faked smiles and wide-eyed facial expressions that paint a picture of a man empty inside. He feels no emotional pain (it’s not a movie about depression, but rather the inability to feel), and Gyllenhaal portrays it with grace and subtlety. This isn’t Southpaw, which saw him screaming into pillows, drinking himself silly, and actively attempting to commit suicide, but the polar opposite of that performance, showcasing once again that the man has seriously amazing range as an actor.
The first 30 minutes or so of Demolition are compelling; Davis begins disassembling objects around his home and his workplace, fixated on understanding how they operate. It’s another in-your-face metaphor, but it works. We have an emotionally distant widower contemplating the very nature of his marriage, life, and existence, hellbent on eventually reassembling himself to repair his own internal parts. Even when a female customer support representative named Karen (Naomi Watts) begins returning his calls, the movie remains engaging as she attempts to insert herself into his life, taking an interest in his loneliness.
At some point though, Demolition becomes irritatingly repetitive without anything of interest to say. There can only be so many scenes of Davis destroying household appliances while making no real progress with his mental well-being before viewers will sit back and ask “What is the point of all of this and where the hell is it going?”. The answer is to a load of completely random twists and revelations about characters (both alive and dead) that feel tacked on as an attempt to regain the film’s momentum. Instead, it just completely negates all of the goodwill the movie had built up until then. Some plot points in the movie are just really odd, but shouldn’t really be spoiled either. Just prepare yourself for disbelief when Davis visits a doctor to see what is wrong with his heart.
Demolition also contains far too many subplots that pull focus away from the very interesting character study of Davis. He has to deal with the husband of the customer service representative he enters a relationship with (a character that adds absolutely nothing to the story), Karen (she also has problems), and her foul-mouthed and troubled teenage son (Judah Lewis with a very good performance from a child actor). There is also a really bizarre story detour about the kid’s sexuality that will have viewers questioning what the movie has become. The biggest problem though is how it’s all edited together, with the film showcasing Davis interacting with one character for 20 minutes and then a different one. There are so many scenes with Karen’s son towards the end that the narrative becomes jarring, as you wonder where Karen has seemingly disappeared to. Essentially, all of the various subplots are scattershot presented and disjoint the whole experience.
Don’t fault the actors though , as everyone puts in just enough incredible work to save the movie from being a total disaster, raising it into something I cautiously recommend. Demolition has many great individual scenes, along with a very dark sense of humor that certainly helps the movie from ever really becoming truly boring, but it fails to come together as the ambitious piece of art it is striving to be. There is a scene where the characters discuss if Crazy On You is a sad song, and all I can say is that going into this movie, I was desperately hoping to leave crazy about it. Jake Gyllenhaal once again delivers an awards worthy performance in a movie that doesn’t deserve his presence.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
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