Davis Mitchell (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a successful investment banker married to Julia (Heather Lind), the beautiful daughter of his boss, Phil (Chris Cooper). His life is shattered in an instant when a car crashes into them as they discuss a leaking refrigerator. Following his loss, Davis descends into his own world and sets out to destroy his past and start a new life through “Demolition.”
This dark and quirky story, by Bryan Sipe, is director Jean-Marc Vallee’s third film since his Oscar winning “Dallas Buyers Club.” “Demolition” is, like that film and “Wild” (also Oscar nominated), about a spiritual journey. For Davis, his journey is one of dismantling, quite literally, his past life and creating a new and different one.
Davis does not seem to be handling Julia’s death with the appropriate grief in the eyes of his father-in-law. While at the hospital awaiting word on Julia, he tries to get a bag of M&Ms from a vending machine. It takes his money but gives no candy. Angered by this slight, he writes to the vending company, venting his spleen. Obsessively, he then writes again and again, baring his soul to whoever gets the letters.
He gets a return call from Karen (Naomi Watts), the company customer service rep and single mom to 14-year old Chris (Judah Louis). This begins the strange relationship the three will grow into together as Davis goes to Karen’s workplace and they begin a friendship that includes having Chris help with destroying Davis’s home. (This bit of unbridled destruction with sledge hammers and a bulldozer really appeals to the boy in me.)
Jake Gyllenhaal gives a performance that is, at once, without emotion and seething with anger.
Naomi Watts is very subdued as Karen and this feels right for the character – she has her own life baggage. Judah Louis is a real find as Chris and he and Gyllenhaal perform well together – like a big and a little kid playing together. I give it a B-.
When Davis Mitchell's (Jake Gyllenhaal) wife Julia (Heather Lind, "Mistress America") is killed in a car accident, he becomes obsessed with the hospital vending machine's failure to supply his M&Ms. At his in-laws after her funeral, Davis practices crying in their bathroom mirror. He gives an honest account of his feelings, or lack thereof, while writing to Champion Vending customer service. Late one night he gets a call back from the concerned Karen Mareno (Naomi Watts) in "Demolition."
With Davis, screenwriter Bryan Sipe ("The Choice") has constructed a character who seemingly has everything, but has lost the ability to feel. His wife admonishes him for not paying attention. when her death fails to rattle him ('She was a nice girl, worked with special needs kids, snorted when she laughed...that's all I really knew about her'), Davis begins to break things down in order to rebuild, much like the unnamed protagonist of "Fight Club."
But unlike that film, it is nigh impossible to get inside Davis's head space here, Gyllenhaal remaining a blank even as he connects with Karen and her troubled 15 year-old Chris (Judah Lewis, 2015's "Point Break"). The film leans so heavily on symbolism and metaphor that Davis remains one of the metaphors he tries to write about himself.
Coming more into focus is Karen, a pothead and single mom wanting to reconnect with her rebellious boy. She's as a lost as Davis, living with her boss, Carl (C.J. Wilson, "The Intern"), more out of convenience than passion. But even Karen acts oddly in the hands of Sipe who'd have us believe she'd call a stranger at 2 a.m. but resist every attempt he makes to meet her. The film's standout is Lewis, a kid at his own crossroads whose connection with Davis propels him to declare himself - at a cost. Also affecting is Chris Cooper as Davis's perplexed father-in-law and boss, Phil. As Margot, Davis's mother-in-law, Polly Draper is also manipulated into an inexplicable cruelty by the script.
Director Jean-Marc Vallée's ("Dallas Buyers Club," "Wild") production can't be faulted, but while individual scenes work (Davis's 'dance' through NYC, his odd exchanges on the commuter train and interactions with Phil), the whole never hangs together. The 'demolition' of the title begins with taking things apart - a refrigerator, an office computer - then descends into full scale razing. We have no idea where Davis lives after he literally knocks his house down. Nor are we ever convinced he loved his wife despite a lovely Brighton Beach coda.
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