In Jean-Marc Vallee's new film Demolition, Jake Gyllenhaal plays a guy drifting through life in the wake of tragedy. And to break himself out of that funk, he uses a sledgehammer to literally smash apart his old home. The image of a sledgehammer could also be used to describe the way the film's themes are pounded into the audience with reckless abandon. While there is much to admire about the performances from Gyllenhaal and the rest of the talented cast, Demolition traffics in platitudes rather than anything genuine far too often.
“Everything has become a metaphor,” says investment banker Davis Mitchell (Gyllenhaal) at one point in the film, and he might as well have been talking to us. The screenplay by Bryan Sipe spoon feeds the audience one tired trope after another in the most unsubtle of ways, and it's only due to Gyllenhaal's typically staunch portrayal as a man trying to put his life back together that the film doesn't become a complete joke. Davis is a man whose wife (Heather Lind), a woman he barely seems to acknowledge, has just been killed in a car accident. While the people around him send their condolences and express their grief, Davis is completely devoid of emotion. It's a wonder nobody suggested he might be a sociopath who murdered her. But the fact is he's simply shut down on an emotional level and always seems to have been, long before her death.
The first signs of interminable offbeat-ness enter the picture when Davis tries to buy a pack of M&Ms at the hospital where his wife died. The candy doesn't dispense, and Davis begins writing long, detailed letters to the machine's customer service rep, pothead single mom Karen (Naomi Watts), who is taken aback by his honesty. This begins a friendship that goes beyond mere letter writing, as Davis becomes part of Karen's life and into that of her adolescent son, Chris (Judah Lewis), who is undergoing an identity crisis. Surmising that they are both pretty "fucked up", Chris and Davis become fast friends, and some of the film's most enjoyable scenes are them just hanging out, playing the drums, rockin' out, smashing things with sledgehammers. Boys being boys, right?
The problem is that very little else resonates or feels authentic. Why is Davis smashing up his house with a hammer? He's fallen into a disturbing pattern of literally tearing things apart in order to find out how they work. The obvious, heavy-handed metaphor is that he's tearing apart his own life in order to find out what went wrong and if it can be fixed. This rightfully perplexes the crap out of his stern father-in-law (Chris Cooper) who can't understand why Davis isn't in mourning like everybody else. Davis' odd behavior is leaned on as a substitute for real reflection; little insight into what sent him into a tailspin is made available that isn't already riddled in quirk. There's a scene where he literally runs through a flock of seagulls; if SNL were spoofing overcooked Hollywood clichés that would be in it. And there really isn't much in the way of dramatic tension. What exactly are the stakes? Davis' sanity? With so little genuine conflict, Sipe's screenplay shoehorns in a dangerous scenario that comes completely out of left field and feels like it's from a separate movie altogether.
Despite all of this, Gyllenhaal proves to be better than the material he's saddled with. Considering the problems with the screenplay, he had an immensely difficult lift trying to make Davis' pain believable, while also finding moments of black humor in his struggle. He managed to pull it off, though, and the same goes for Watts in a sorely underdeveloped role. In a way it's kind of amazing that Marc-Vallee, whose previous films Dallas Buyers Club and Wild showed such emotional nuance, would sign up for such a forceful mess. If anything, it's Demolition that is sorely in need of being taken apart and repaired.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5