Directed by Jean-Marc Vallee
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Naomi Watts, Chris Cooper
How can a film about a man’s systematic mental breakdown as he works through the sudden death of his wife be riotously funny?! It seems an odd question, but that is exactly what Demolition leaves you asking yourself as you are viewing it. What is even stranger is that this is a film that isn’t mean-spirited, or even necessarily darkly comic, but rather uses humour to question our assumptions about how things work.
When his wife is killed in a car crash, Davis (Jake Gyllenhaal) finds himself acting increasingly odd. He begins to write long complaint letters to a vending machine company, giving strange and copious details of his life. He talks to strangers on the train, providing an honest and intensely personal account of himself. Finally, he starts to deconstruct things to find out how they work – fridges, computers, toilet stall doors, a house. As his behaviour becomes increasingly dysfunctional he finds himself falling into conflict with his father-in-law (Chris Cooper) over his wife’s legacy, as well as forming a relationship with a customer service representative (Naomi Watts) that responds to his complaint.
Demolition works, because there is not a mean bone in its entire body. It treats all its characters equally humanely. There are no real villains here, rather people who are suffering in their own way and trying to work through what is blocking them. As such Davis becomes an Everyman with a sledgehammer. His mania for deconstruction is a way for him to understand himself and his relationship. Events have forced him to look at things in a different manner, and to work through that block with explosive results. It is a cathartic approach that all of us can understand and empathise with.
Gyllenhaal is excellent in this regard, bringing tons of charisma to the role. He has a naturalism to him, a low key attitude, paring back what could so easily be overwrought or staged (given the extreme actions Davis engages in throughout the course of the film). His matter of fact delivery and whole hearted embracing of those extremes result in comedic gold, leaving the audience laughing despite the grim subject matter. The rest of the cast ably supports Gyllenhaal, but surprisingly perhaps the only one to really stand toe to toe with him is Judah Lewis. As a disaffected teen questioning his own identity, the bond they form drives the last quarter of the film, and provides something that both characters were unaware they needed.
All of this is not to say that Demolition is a perfect film by any stretch of the imagination. Despite an incredibly tight set up and great characters, it flails around in the third act, unsure of where it wants to go and how to get there. Its conclusion is also somewhat forced and vaguely unsatisfactory, but it is the characters rather than the plot that sell this film. The result is quirky and mostly unexpected cinema that is a joy to watch. Demolition delights in providing the unpredictable, and it quickly wins you over with its charm, while leaving you to contemplate its weighty subject matter.