Demolition is the type of mediocre film only truly talented people could make. Beautifully filmed, acutely directed, finely acted but completely stilted by a cliché narrative, the latest from filmmaker Jean-Marc Vallee (Dallas Buyers Club, Wild) is one of those life-affirming crowd-pleasers that, much like its lead character, can’t quite figure itself out. Unable to balance its quirky voice with its conventional themes of grief, forgiveness and reawakening, it’s a disjointed effort all-around — one that’s never short on heart but always limited in terms of originality and scope. Despite another transformative lead performance from Jake Gyllenhaal, Demolition destroys nearly every chance it gets to rise to its full potential.
From the very first minute it starts, there’s an unmistakable Sundance feel to this movie. Davis (Gyllenhaal) is a wealthy investment banker that befalls victim to a tragedy when he suffers a fatal car crash. His wife (Heather Lind) is immediately killed on impact, while he’s left without a scratch. As he tries to make sense of this accident, Davis finds himself awoken for the first time in nearly a decade. After a vending machine at the hospital fails to give him a snack he purchased, he begins writing into a void to the customer service department, spilling out his insecurities, frustrations and contemplations as he begins to realize how little he’s lived his life.
These intimate therapy sessions provoke a new way of life for Davis — one that lets his hair grow out a little bit, loosen up his attire considerably and start dismantling each and every object that’s around him, as he attempts to discover how everything works by breaking it down to its most simple elements. Now Davis is seeing things he’s never noticed before, finding things he didn’t think he would ever discover and reinventing himself in a radical new way — much to the dismay of Phil (Chris Cooper), his boss and former father-in-law.
Ordered to take some time off from work, Davis finds himself paying bosses to let him work on construction sites, purchasing handyman tools he’s never bought before and using his hands for the first time in his well-groomed life. And in the process of physical and spiritually unwinding, he crosses paths with Karen (Naomi Watts), a costumer service manager who was deeply moved by Davis’ open-hearted letters. Over time, he and Karen form a friendship-of-sorts, while Davis also plays father figure to Chris (Judah Lewis), an inquisitive 15-year-old that’s coming into his own sexuality and masculinity. Though Phil remains worried about his previous son-in-law’s well-being, Davis finds confronting death has made him feel more alive than ever. For he’s on the verge of discovering not only who he is, but what matters to him most.
Build concretely on good intentions and positive energy, Demolition isn’t a hard movie to watch, but it’s almost impossible to divorce it from other films before it. Despite Yves Bélanger’s always gorgeous cinematography adding depth and nuance to Vallee’s careful eye, there’s a Hallmark quality to this film that’s impossible to shake. The director’s signature grounded realism and Gyllenhaal’s poignant performance often make the flimsy familiarity of Bryan Sipe’s screenplay more palpable and sincere than they read, but it’s not enough to make the final product feel truthful. There’s a depth missing to Davis’ transformation, despite Gyllenhaal’s persistent efforts to make it seem otherwise, and throughout the character’s progression into self-discovery, a genuine sense of morality is also absent.
As sweet and gentle as Demolition can be at times, it ultimately feels hollow and morally bankrupt. And that’s a shame for multiple reasons, but namely because Demolition does almost work. Well, at least for a short period of time. Davis’ initial journey is filled with sorrowful, deeply-felt pathos laced with absurd beats of humor in the vein of David O. Russell or Jonathan Demme’s better, grounded works, and there’s a candor to it provided by Vallee’s soft, watchful gaze as well as Gyllenhaal’s versatile performance, which is mournful without ever wallowing into nauseating self-pity. But just when Demolition begins to find itself, it gets boggled down by tired tropes, overbearing visual metaphors and a scattered focus. What once felt tender and affecting now seems disingenuous and trite, and it kills of the momentum Vallee created before.
And though Jay M. Glen’s editing is always sharp — and supporting turns by Cooper, Watts and Lewis are as powerful as Gyllenhaal’s lead performance — Demolition can’t get itself out of its own mess. What once felt appropriately detached from reality becomes fragmented from emotional honesty. And its humdrum, been there-done that final message doesn’t earn its payoff, despite a decent running start. It begins to feel like any other self-important festival darling that fails to make an impact, and that shouldn’t have been the case here. Gyllenhaal, Vallee and everyone involved can do better than this, and that it crashes-and-burns before the finish mark is a sad sight to behold. By now means is this one a disaster, but it’s definitely a disappointment.