What goes down must come up.
Director Jean-Marc Vallée’s Demolition is the kind of indie fodder that tells the whole story in one two-and-a-half minute trailer. Jake Gyllenhaal plays a successful investment banker, Davis Mitchell, whose wife dies in a tragic car accident. Despite his father-in-law/boss Phil (Chris Cooper) encouraging him to get his life back on track, Davis starts to unravel and develops an odd coping mechanism: taking things apart — refrigerators, computers, bathroom stalls, you name it. But it isn’t until Davis meets another woman (Naomi Watts) and her young son (Judah Lewis) that he considers rebuilding his life from the ground up.
Even now, you can probably guess where this story is heading. But as predictable as Demolition is, it comes with enough solid performances and witty dialogue to kill a brisk 100 minutes. Gyllenhaal in particular really commits to the lead role, which demands both emotional detachment and dry humor. You see, even though his wife has just died, Davis doesn’t really feel one way or the other about it — contrary to the rest of his family — which is where most of the comedy stems from.
Tonally, Demolition feels a bit like a Chuck Palahniuk book: dark, nihilistic, sarcastic — but less Fight Club, more Survivor or Diary. Davis doesn’t exactly “narrate” the film, but he does write complaint letters to a vending machine company, revealing all his thoughts and insecurities. As it turns out, he’s actually writing to one customer service rep, Watts’s character Karen, and, as these things usually go, the two form a twisted but cathartic bond. Later, the focus shifts — somewhat awkwardly — to a mentor/mentee dynamic between Davis and Karen’s rebellious son Chris, which takes the main emotional arc to its bittersweet conclusion.
For the most part, the story succeeds, but it’s not without a few eye-rolling subplots. For instance, some scenes practically telegraph how they’re going to play out before they even happen, like when Davis foolishly decides to bring Karen to his late wife’s charity event, which is hosted by his former in-laws. Another sequence finds Davis, late in his devil-may-care phase, returning to work during an important meeting, which is obviously doomed from the second he enters the room. That’s not to mention the copious “demolition” scenes, which are fun at first but then slowly grow tiresome and repetitive.
That said, the film has its strengths too, most notably the character relationships. Unfortunately, Davis and Karen’s bond is, unexpectedly, the weakest, probably because it’s not what the story is really about. Also, it’s pretty dull overall. (Karen is basically a manic pixie dream girl, if manic pixie dream girls had responsibilities and kids.) That said, Davis and Chris anchor each other in much more interesting ways. Surprisingly, the most satisfying character arc is between Davis and Cooper’s character Phil, as they take warring approaches to grieving the loss of their wife and daughter, respectively.
In the end, Demolition offers little new to the quirky indie genre, but, again, the actors and welcome cheeky tone make the film enjoyable to watch, fleeting though it may be.