You’ll be too busy fuming over the manipulative plot twists and lack of meaningful character interactions to appreciate what works here.
If you didn’t catch the nauseatingly cheesy trailer for Demolition, don’t worry—the first five minutes of the movie will catch you up. It opens in a car where investment banker Davis Mitchell (Jake Gyllenhaal) and his wife Julia (Heather Lind) are driving somewhere while arguing, or rather, she’s nagging at him and he’s not paying attention. You get the feeling that Davis is so comfortable in his life that he’s disengaged. Mid-argument they get into a car accident that kills Julia. Surely, this will end up being the laziest opening to a film all year.
A man as emotionally crippled as Davis deals with Julia’s death the only way he knows how: he displaces it. Davis starts taking things apart, like his refrigerator and the bathroom stalls at his work. He also writes a series of letters to the Champion Vending Machine Company where he complains about being cheated out of peanut M&Ms on the night of his wife’s death. It’s supposed to be an endearing quirk, but it feels manipulative and cheap. These letters get the attention of single mother Karen (Naomi Watts, playing a character whose main personality trait is that she smokes weed) who works customer service for the company. She calls Davis late into the night to let him know how much his letter touched her. She wants to make sure he has someone to talk to. The calls between the two become frequent, and Karen becomes so infatuated with him she starts stalking Davis. Soon after, they start spending time together. They do things like run through a flock of birds and build a couch fort. Believe it or not, the film actually gets worse from here.
The movie goes from bad to offensive as it becomes clear that single-parent Karen’s role is nothing more than a manic pixie plot device. Her plotline falls off inexplicably, leaving me to assume that screenwriter Bryan Sipe doesn’t know how to write female characters so he ditches the only one with a significant speaking role in his movie. Instead, it becomes about her son Chris (Judah Lewis) and Davis breaking shit. Chris is a 15-year-old androgynous bad boy who loves classic rock, plays the drums, and thinks he might be gay. Also, he seems to have some resentment towards his mother that never gets worked through, of course. You never really buy the connection between Chris and Davis, but that’s okay because they spend most their time together breaking shit and dancing to Chris’ favorite rock songs. It’s infuriating to think about how much time in this movie about grief is dedicated to taking things apart, instead of, you know, being about the much-needed soul-searching that behavior is supposed to represent.
If you didn’t know already, it may come as a surprise that the director of this movie is none other than Dallas Buyers Club‘s Jean-Marc Vallée. Vallée has directed four actors to Oscar-nominated performances, two of which—Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club—resulted in wins. It should come to no surprise to hear that the best thing about this film is the acting. Watts might be wasted due to being written out of the film, however, Gyllenhaal turns out one of the finer performances of his already great career. He is best in the quiet scenes but often makes ham-fisted lines like “everything has become a metaphor” better than they have any right to be. Demolition is a superficial portrait of grief, and you’ll be too busy fuming over the manipulative plot twists and lack of meaningful character interactions to appreciate what works here. One can only hope that if Vallée and Gyllenhaal team up again, they’ll make something more tolerable. | Cait Lore