DEMOLITION. Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Naomi Watts, Chris Cooper, Judah Lewis, and Heather Lindt. Directed by Jean-Marc Vallee. M (Mature themes, sexual references, drug references and coarse language).101min.
This American drama is about a New York, Wall Street investment banker, who loses his wife in a tragic car accident. The title of the movie draws its meaning from his attempts to recover from grief by "taking everything apart" to reconstruct his life.
Davis Mitchell (Jake Gyllenhaal) sits in the waiting room of the hospital for final news on his fatally injured wife, Julia (Heather Lindt). With him is his father-in-law, Phil (Chris Cooper), who is also his boss, and he is consoled by those around him. But he feels nothing, and doesn't know why. Davis fixates on a faulty vending machine in the waiting-room that won't' deliver the M&Ms he has paid for. After his wife's funeral, he resumes his life as if nothing had happened, and he shows no obvious signs of remorse. He starts writing long letters to the vending company whose machine failed him in the waiting room. His letters are inappropriate and atypically personal, and he begins literally demolishing the world around him.
Karen Moreno (Naomi Watts) is the customer representative of the company that receives his letters, and she responds to the honesty of what his letters are saying. She begins a friendship with Davis that helps him find a way through the turmoil of his life. Karen's disturbed son, Chris (Judah Lewis), joins Davis in his quest for demolition, and the act of "tearing down" signals emotional recovery for both of them. Lewis' performance as Karen's confused and alienated son, who is searching for a father-figure and a mother's love, is excellent.
Davis' preoccupation is to dismantle things and put them back together to look different, and his preoccupation becomes a metaphor for the movie as a whole: one has to demolish in order to build afresh. The metaphor itself is tricky and problematic, but Gyllenhaal makes it work. Gyllenhaal is an actor of enormous accomplishment, and he manages to make Davis' acts of demolition - irrational as they seem - look sensible in his emotional circumstances. Tearing things apart allows him to reconnect with his emotional self, which he has ignored for the last 12 years, and his obsessive behaviour paradoxically starts to rehabilitate him. By working with the metaphor of demolition, the Director of the movie (Jean-Marc Vallee) tracks Davis' journey to recovery in a dramatic and highly unusual way, and the demolition metaphor accumulates power and dramatic intensity as the movie progresses.
Gyllenhaal and Watts work very well together, and there is obvious chemistry between them. In the film, they play characters who stalk each other, and help each other, in mutual neediness. What Karen does is important for Davis. While Davis unravels, Karen reflects on what is happening to him, and for him that is therapeutic. Her empathy, and Davis' ability to tap into the wave-length of her disturbed son become building blocks to help him recover. Advertised as a movie about loss, this film is just as much about reassessing wrong choices that have been made, finding a path to the future, and locating where hope lies through "learning to care about things".
This unconventional movie is quite unpredictable in its capacity to deliver emotional surprises. It mixes humour with drama, and explores novel ways to identify with a grieving person, who has lost the capacity to feel. A quirky script handles seemingly inappropriate moments well, and by the end of the movie, which moves a little unexpectedly to a happy finish, we understand thoroughly why Davis felt he had to practise being tearful at his wife's funeral. At that time, he had to rehearse his grief to make it all seem genuine, but now he doesn't. And he starts to weep in genuine sorrow.
This is an impressive movie that is very well acted and tautly directed. Some viewers might not take to the movie's demolition metaphor, but it is one that dramatically allows the film, in an entirely original way, to convey insightful messages about grief and its potentially crippling effects.
Peter W. Sheehan is associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting
Fox Searchlight Pictures
Released July 14, 2016