Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée.
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Naomi Watts, Chris Cooper, Judah Lewis, Polly Draper, Debra Monk, Heather Lind and C.J. Wilson.
A successful investment banker writes a series of letters to a customer complaints representative following the death of his wife.
Julia Mitchell (Heather Lind), in the driving seat, is talking to her husband Davis (Jake Gyllenhaal), about the leaking fridge. Davis is distant, unaware of the tools he received from a relative two Christmases ago, or even of the leaky fridge. Despite the clearly marked post-it note inside, he retorts in dismissive quips. Suddenly, a car crashes into them and the film goes to black. The unscathed Davis awakens, slumped in the hospital waiting-room, and is approached by father-in-law-cum-firm manager Phil Eastwood (Chris Cooper), as they’re informed of Julia’s passing. Davis numbly reacts with indifference and rises to the vending to purchase a packet of peanut M&Ms. Unfortunately the machine is defunct and the hospital staff can’t refund him the money. To claim his refund he must write to the company’s customer complaints department. In a series of intimate letters to said department, Davis contextualises his complaint by speaking of his marriage with Julia, his relationship with Phil, and his indifference towards current events.
The unconventionality of this setup is the film’s greatest strength. Gyllenhaal’s narration is conveyed in part letter recitals, and in part internal quandaries over his work. This approach also establishes the one-sidedness of Davis’ character, given that we hear nothing of the recipient Karen (Naomi Watts) until a few letters into the film. Davis’ inability to express his emotions, like deflecting his attention onto inconsequential musings such as the contents of a traveller’s luggage, makes him private, albeit an insensitive, character. Unfortunately, it’s this insensitivity that makes it difficult for the audience to empathise with Davis’ conflict.
Davis makes contact with Karen by arriving at her house unannounced just to deliver a letter. He discovers that she’s in an intimate relationship with her boss Carl (C.J. Wilson) and that she has an emotionally confused fifteen-year-old son named Chris (Judah Lewis), who is understandably hostile to the unexplained this new male figure in his life. Chris warns Davis of his mum’s erratic behaviour, but, during this ‘reawakening’ chapter in Davis’ life, so is Davis. Herein lies a huge issue: Davis is tremendously unlikable, and a really insensitive jerk. He is emotionally distant to his loving (for the most part) wife, he encroaches onto Karen’s life with no regard for Carl or Chris’ presence, and his part self-discovery and part self-destructive path lays to waste a host of casualties. The whole journey is faux-twee desperately seeking an edge with casual drug taking, and casual swearing – Davis’ learned advice onto Chris’ over-usage of the word ‘fuck’ begins endearing, but soon veers towards smug.
This journey for self-discovery feels disingenuous. Davis’ wild, frantic, child-like demolition of his postmodern numbed existence would be endearing had it not been for his cold reaction to the aforementioned accident. If anything, his actions have all the hallmarks of a mental breakdown: for an hour of the film, we witness a man struggle with his emotions, yet it’s positioned for the audience to sympathise and support said actions.
Demolition begins with a brilliant opening act, only to recess into conventionality with a jerk as our protagonist. After the great works by Vallée (Wild, Dallas Buyers Club), this marks as a dip in his catalogue.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★