Whilst Gyllenhaal is on typically great form, further backed by some strong supporting performances from Cooper and Watts, it ultimately suffers for lacking in focus and stumbles over tiresome clichés.
Jean-Marc Vallée has been building quite a strong repertoire for himself recently. Starting with the well received The Young Victoria, a gorgeously framed period drama, he cemented his presence with the Oscar-winning biopic Dallas Buyers Club and carried on this form by reviving Reese Witherspoon’s career with Wild. It seemed as though, when details started coming through about this project, with Jake Gyllenhaal, Chris Cooper and Naomi Watts attached, that he’d geared up to hit another home run. Alas, this is not the case.
Demolition follows the story of Davis (Jake Gyllenhaal), an investment banker who struggles to come to terms with the death of his wife in a car accident. In a weirdly quirky and oddly confessional manner, he begins to write a series letters to the company of a vending machine, of which the customer service rep begins to form a connection.
It’s clear, by that definition alone, that the film sets itself apart by not conforming to regular clichés, allowing the nature of the story to unfold in an unconventional manner; we essentially only have bare bones, a story in which the characters are the main focus, not necessarily the narrative. Unfortunately, this is where one of the film’s several faults rears its head. It can’t make it’s mind up over what it’s attempting to be. An exercise in grief and loss and how people deal with it? A character study of a man who’s life unravels after the death of his wife? Poor Gyllenhaal, the second movie in a row where his wife gets offed, his agent mustn’t like him much.
In the end, it meanders and middles and suffers because of it’s lack of focus. Vallée has his characters act in a way that would only fit to serve the narrative, an unrealistic one at that, and as a result, it has none of the emotional gravitas or heft that it believes it does. Furthermore, the sentiment ‘pictures can paint a thousand words’ is completely lost in the lead-headed script. It sporadically churns out stuff like “my life has become a metaphor” and then bashes us over the head by presenting imagery that can clearly be deciphered as a metaphor without its characters openly stating so. That’s not to say it doesn’t have its moments; where it does work fairly well is when it attempts to be quietly humorous, especially with the idea of Gyllenhaal systematically deconstructing everything around him (metaphorically or not).
It’s not all bad though, with actors like Gyllenhaal, Cooper and Watts, you’d expect to be privy to at least some decent acting. Where the film does tend to dilly dally and not move in any particular direction, it has its trifecta of talent to keep it afloat. Gyllenhaal here is on great form. He exudes effortless charm and likability whilst completely buying into the oddball manner in which his character deals with his grief and handles it superbly; consistently at the centre of whatever good the film offers.
Along for the ride also, is the ever-reliable Chris Cooper. It always strikes me how subtly Cooper goes about his business as one of the most safe and ever present actors in Hollywood. Rarely do you ever see a bad Chris Cooper performance and that record doesn’t end here; as Gyllenhaal’s father-in-law and head of the firm that he works at, he captures the essence of a parent who loses his daughter and the anguish of a man who believes that it should never had happened. Watts is somewhat shortchanged in terms of her role, largely one-dimensional on paper, but she does well with it and has a warm, mature chemistry with Gyllenhaal. A special shout out should also go to newcomer Judah Lewis as Watts’ estranged and angsty teenage son.
On a relative side-note, it should be mentioned that the soundtrack here is rather brilliant. The use of songs, despite being scarce, can’t be faulted and should actually be commended.
Demolition (2016) Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, is distributed in the UK by Fox Searchlight Pictures. Certificate 15.