Though his career goes back twenty years, including works as varied as ‘70s coming-out/coming-of-age story C.R.A.Z.Y. and prestige period drama The Young Victoria, fifty-three year-old Québécois director Jean-Marc Vallée has since become renowned for life-affirming tales of self-discovery in the wake of tragedy.
While Dallas Buyers Club and Wild respectively dealt with AIDs and the death of a parent as a catalyst for the extralegal (smuggling prescription drugs) and the existential (hiking the Pacific Crest Trail), Vallée’s latest, Demolition, deals with a trickier one: disaffection.
Jake Gyllenhaal plays Mitchell Davis, an investment banker who’s more or less checked out of his marriage with Julia (Heather Lind). He’s given a wake-up call when the two of them are involved in a violent car accident in which Julia is killed. This leads Mitchell to a series of revelations; among others that, he didn’t really love his wife.
Demolition is a study of absence – what happens when you don’t feel the way you should? – and Gyllenhaal, as in Nightcrawler, once more turns in a compelling, albeit somewhat more benign, portrait of a man who is missing something. It’s a solid, workmanlike performance, but not the stuff that Oscar noms are made of.
Phil (Chris Cooper), Mitchell’s grieving/aggrieved father-in-law/boss. Phil wants to set up a scholarship in Julia’s name, but Mitchell can’t bring himself to commit to some grand, hollow gesture. He’s more interested in taking apart the fixtures and fittings, starting with the dripping fridge; which, as Mitchell himself notes, seems like a metaphor for his relationship: something left unattended.
Given Bryan Sipes’ slightly flat screenplay, it also feels a little too like meta-commentary. What Demolition documents is not so much a breakdown as disassembly; all of which is relayed via Mitchell’s wry narration.
What starts of a series of revealing letters he sends to a vending machine company, ostensibly looking for a refund on a packet of peanut m&ms that failed to dispense, leads instead to a Platonic friendship with customer care rep Karen – a quiet, lightly kooky single mum to whom Naomi Watts brings an unassuming feeling of both delicacy and strength.
Spending his evenings hanging out with her and his days chilling with her sly, rebellious teenage son, aspiring rock star Chris (Judah Lewis), Mitchell begins to come alive in a way that, as he confides to his doctor, he hasn’t in fifteen years.
The next logical step, for Mitchell at least, is to break out the sledgehammer and go to work on granite kitchen counter-tops and flat-screen TVs. He even pays to join a wrecking crew who diagnose him correctly as a man looking for a fix. If this is Mitchell’s fix, however, it feels like a patch job.
The film is so matter-of-fact in its destruction and there’s so little significance attached to that any deeper meaning is lost. There’s less interest in catharsis here than simply the notion of being happy for a bit, but, compared to the grand emotional scope of Vallée’s previous films, it can’t help but feel a bit underwhelming.
With his windowpane check suit, tortoise sunglasses, and air of dispossessed cool, Mitchell also feels like a more affluent, less self-conscious escapee from a Zack Braff film. While Demolition may feature an elderly pot dealer who operates out of a rundown pier fun-house, the film is too polished to pull off the same sense of quirky indie cool. It feels seamless; like the whole narrative has been poured out like concrete.
The film never explores its own foundations, the complexities of character that should underscore Mitchell’s ennui, but seems instead to skate by as a respectable middle-of-the-road drama. Yves Bélanger’s crisp cinematography makes the most of New York’s clean lines and Jay M. Glen’s associative editing tries to breathe life into the mix, but, even when it’s out of the office, Demolition feels strangely corporate.
Vallée’s almost imperceptible use of shaky-cam is just window-dressing in this context. Gyllenhaal’s sad eyes and bashful smile, and easy chemistry with Watts, should make this an easy sell; instead, you’re left with the feeling like you’re taking apart the dramatic equivalent of flat-pack furniture.
Maybe if they’d included an instruction manual…