“Demolition” is a rarity: A film with a profound emotional truth at its heart that lies to us, scene by scene, from start to finish.
Writer Bryan Sipe and director Jean-Marc Vallée focus on Davis Mitchell, an investment broker married to the daughter of the guy who founded Davis’ firm (Chris Cooper). She dies in an auto accident in the opening scene, but he cannot grieve. (Jake Gyllenhaal stands out in a difficult role.)
Did he really love her? Did he even know her, deep down? He’s so broken that he has no idea what he feels, or even if he can feel. As he drifts forward, he realizes he may become whole again if he takes his life apart: first the leaky refrigerator in his mansion, then his computer at work, then his relationships.
This story could potentially move us deeply, if only the filmmakers didn’t shatter the illusion of reality every five minutes. Consider three of the most egregious examples:
▪ Davis writes his life story in maudlin, self-revealing letters to a vending company that “stole” $1.25 when a machine failed to yield a bag of candy. Instead of asking authorities to investigate him, the woman in charge of customer service – a sensitive, attractive, equally distraught single mom (Naomi Watts) – invites him on a blind date. When her live-in boyfriend goes on a convenient, extended out-of-town trip, love blossoms with Davis.
▪ She has a smart, troubled 15-year-old son (well played by Judah Lewis) who fears he’s gay, sullenly addresses f-bombs to the world and has been suspended from school for “telling the truth” about our failed invasion of Iraq, apparently illustrating his class presentation with a blowtorch. Davis helps straighten the kid (and himself) out by purchasing a bulletproof vest and urging the boy, who has never handled a gun, to shoot him in the chest from 30 feet away.
▪ Or (my favorite) Davis first learns the virtue of mass destruction by walking up to a professional demolition team taking down a house. He offers them $240 to let him join them. Lawsuit worries and insurance problems would make any contractors in America send him away, but not these guys. And when he punctures his foot deeply with a nail, no worries! It’s all good, because his pain proves he’s conscious.
We are expected to find this wild, seemingly destructive behavior life-enhancing, but it’s too ridiculous: Davis buys a bulldozer and crushes his own house. (This isn’t a spoiler; it’s in the trailer.) But he’s a millionaire, so we know he can buy another as soon as the fit passes.
All four leads make the scenes as genuine as they can, and real emotions come through. But the script undercuts them with clichés: a Letter Discovered After Death, a Cathartic Return to the Scene Where Everything Began. When you hear Davis say he never wanted anything as badly as he wanted to win a footrace as a boy, you know he’ll sprint past a pack of runners at some point and flash us a victory sign. Sadly, this unconventional tale returns to tired conventions over and over again.
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Naomi Watts, Judah Lewis, Chris Cooper.
Director: Jean-Marc Vallée.
Length: 100 minutes.
Rating: R (language, some sexual references, drug use and disturbing behavior).