With his latest film Demolition, Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée continues his artistic m.o. of searching for unexpected entryways into seemingly familiar material. His 2005 C.R.A.Z.Y. breathed exuberant life into a standard coming-of-age tale, refreshing its stock characters through sheer infectious energy and sharp writing and acting. Not even Vallée’s best efforts, though, were enough to rescue his subsequent American pictures—the costume drama The Young Victoria and Dallas Buyers Club, a redemptive Schindler’s List-type drama set at the height of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s—from banality. But in taking on Wild, Vallée brought Cheryl Strayed’s self-help memoir to the screen with striking intimacy, mostly through alternating between past and present in ways that suggested the main character’s own reminiscence-filled thoughts and pilgrimage. In Demolition, Vallée pushes this aesthetic to an extreme of sorts, and the results, combined with Bryan Sipe’s eccentric screenplay, are surprising in often off-kilter ways. This is a tale of grief like few others, one that edges into the realm of dark comedy while mysteriously maintaining a surface poise through all the madness on display.
Such an approach fits with the mindset of the film’s main character, Davis Mitchell (Jake Gyllenhaal), an investment banker who loses his wife, Julia (Heather Lind), in a car accident, but who proceeds to show his grief in the strangest ways possible. “Repairing the human heart is like repairing an automobile,” his father-in-law and boss Phil (Chris Cooper) says to Davis not too long after his wife’s death. Upon hearing this, Davis becomes obsessed with the idea of taking objects apart in order to discover their inner workings. At first he’s only interested in dissecting the likes of clocks and refrigerators; gradually, though, his mania extends to whole houses, to the point where he finally decides to, well, demolish his entire Long Island home, smashing things with a hammer and purchasing an entire bulldozer to raze it. For a finance-focused guy with a seemingly picture-perfect suburban existence, this newfound penchant for physical destruction becomes his own severe version of reassessing his life.
The origins of this anguish-inspired rabbit hole are even more whimsical in nature. A vending-machine jam at the hospital where Julia died leads Davis to write a letter to the company behind the machine, spilling out his whole life story in addition to asking for a refund for the snack he failed to get. The letter gets the attention of a company PR representative, Karen Moreno (Naomi Watts), also stuck in middle-class ennui, who finds Davis’s letter so moving she takes it upon herself to contact him and even stalk him until he reciprocates her perverse gestures. It’s a classic connection of two lost souls, but in this case it plays more like a folie à deux, the only relief from the absurdity coming from the bond that develops between Davis and Karen’s son, Chris (Judah Lewis), a rebellious kid struggling with his possible homosexuality.
Through all the seemingly crazy human behavior in Demolition, Vallée manages a tricky balancing act, inhabiting Davis’s feverish perspective while also standing outside of it. Similar to Wild, Demolition features occasional montages between past and present, suggesting Davis’s all-over-the-place mental state, his voiceover narration completing the spectacle of a man trying to take stock of his life up to that point.
Still, Vallée never verges into full-on expressionism: Yves Bélanger’s cinematography remains rooted in a hand-held realism that allows us some distance to contemplate the psychology that drives Davis. What emerges from this stylistic tightrope is a bizarrely empathetic portrait of a man who basically has to tear down his seemingly perfect life in order to realize some harsh epiphanies about it. This character arc—the privileged man who eventually realizes how soulless and empty his life is—isn’t exactly new either. But under Vallée and Sipe, the black-comic journey to this inevitable destination remains relentlessly, bracingly unpredictable.
Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
Writer: Bryan Sipe
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Naomi Watts, Chris Cooper, Judah Lewis
Release Date: April 8, 2016
Kenji Fujishima is a freelance film critic, contributing to Slant Magazine, Brooklyn Magazine, The Playlist and the Village Voice. He is also Deputy Editor of Movie Mezzanine and former editor-in-chief of In Review Online. When he’s not watching movies and writing and editing film criticism, he’s trying to absorb as much music, art, and literature as possible. He has not infrequently been called a “culture vulture” for that reason.