Director Jean-Marc Vallée has built up an impressive filmography in the past twenty years and his last two features, Dallas Buyers Club and Wild, have propelled Vallée forward as one of the most exciting film-makers of this decade. Now collaborating with the equally impressive Jake Gyllenhaal in Demolition, the script for which appeared on the Hollywood Blacklist in 2007, Vallée explores the concept of grieving for lost loved ones, what people mean too each other and metaphors, lots of metaphors.
Davis (Gyllenhaal) is a successful investment banker under the employ of Phil (Chris Cooper), the father of his wife Julia (Heather Lind). When Julia is killed in a car crash Davis struggles to cope with the grief/or lack thereof and, having been unable to purchase some candy the night of his wife’s death, begins to write a series of complaints to a vending machine company which develop into a personal exertion of his feelings and moods. Unknown to him the letters are being read by Karen (Naomi Watts) a customer service representative with emotional burdens of her own.
As terrific as Gyllenhaal continues to be in Demolition the film is weighed down by a frankly outrageously self-aware quirkiness. Dialogue can be a wonderfully expressive and ingenious tool but here it is overladen with self-importance and pretentiousness as some of the lines delivered by the actors, Watts in particular, just made sections of the audience laugh at how self-aggrandising they seemed. None of the characters feel real and for a film obsessed with truth this veneer of characterisation just makes the eccentricity of the characters seem like desperate attempts to create interesting drama. The second act was a particularly weighty sequence of bizarrely quirky dialogue interchanges and a couple of amusingly shallow montage sequences that leave Demolition a sourly disappointing affair. However in the final act there is a sudden surge of development as Davis begins to dismantle his life we start to see past the babbling posturing of the characters and begin to see some of the truth that Demolition seems to be so obsessed with. Vallée explores how objects truly define us within a relationship and how through taking his life apart Davis is able to see through the definitions of marriage, remembrance, forgiveness and grief to learn and experience them beyond the level of expectancy. Chris Cooper is one of the most reliable character actors going and his measured performance as the grieving Phil is an empathic turn from a great performer, Whilst Naomi Watts is left somewhat desolate as a presence thanks to some rather ungraceful dialogue despite her best efforts.
Whilst at times infuriating it was somewhat rewarding to see Demolition manage to construe its ideas into something relatable. Hitting us in the proverbial face with a dazzlingly vast array of metaphorical dialogue didn’t provoke thought or feeling, but the actions of the latter part of Demolition do create a satisfying resolution. After you wade through the unimportance of all the philosophical nonsense and discover what the film uncovers about the manufacture, and deconstruction, of our relationships then it’s definitely got some qualities that make it worth checking out. Just try not to laugh too hard when Davis announces his realisation that “Everything is a metaphor”.