By John Corrado
★★★½ (out of 4)
The latest showcase for a powerhouse performance from Jake Gyllenhaal, Demolition is a gripping character study of a man who quite literally has to tear every little thing in his life apart, so that he can start to piece it all back together again.
Last year’s opening night film at TIFF, Demolition is proving to be just as polarizing and divisive as it sounds. It’s a love it or hate it type of experience to be sure, but I found the the film genuinely moving in the entirely unique ways it approaches grief and loss.
Davis Mitchell (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a financial suit in New York who lives a carefully manicured life, but is left struggling with how to grieve when he loses his wife (Heather Lind) in a sudden car accident, throwing his world out of whack. Added pressure comes from the fact that he works for her tough father (Chris Cooper), who blames him for the death of his daughter.
Desperate to feel something, Davis starts baring his soul through a series of personal complaint letters to a vending company, prompted by a broken machine at the hospital, which leads to an unconventional relationship of sorts with Karen Moreno (Naomi Watts), a depressed customer service rep who finds his turmoil somehow cathartic. Her defiant teenaged son Chris (Judah Lewis) becomes a sort of confidante to him, as Davis starts radically working through his emotional pain by literally ripping things in his life apart. First it’s his fridge, which needed fixing anyways, but it escalates towards the destruction of his entire house, a glass and steel behemoth that looks a little too perfect to actually be lived in.
Working from a sharply observed blacklist screenplay by Bryan Sipe, director Jean-Marc Vallée has crafted an entirely unique film that pulls off the impressive balancing act of being both darkly funny yet still emotionally resonant, often at the same time. Although playing in an entirely different key than his previous dramas Wild and Dallas Buyers Club, the Canadian filmmaker brings many compelling stylistic touches to the sometimes downright strange material, through his always impressive editing choices and great ear for music. Heart’s “Crazy On You” is a perfect pick for the film’s de facto anthem.
But the success of Demolition really rests in the strength of Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance. The latest in a string of fascinating career choices as of late, the actor brings believable depth to even the most anti-social aspects of his character. Whether it’s a flash of pain behind his eyes, or the freedom with which he dances through the streets of New York rocking along to his headphones, Jake Gyllenhaal makes us feel genuine sympathy for this lost soul, even as the character grows increasingly unhinged.
Judah Lewis provides the perfect foil for our lead. With shoulder length hair and flamboyant attire, his character carries himself with all the flair of a glam rocker, but is really insecure about his broken life and sexual identity. The young actor displays an impressive amount of swagger and confidence in his promising debut performance, more than holding his own alongside Jake Gyllenhaal. A heartfelt and delightfully awkward conversation between them, staged in the aisles of a hardware store, is one of the film’s best moments. Rounding out the cast, Naomi Watts delivers funny and sad supporting work, and Chris Cooper turns in another fine performance as the gruff father figure.
The film will no doubt be dismissed by some as being overly quirky, but I think the material is more interesting than that. At its heart, Demolition is an exploration of how different people approach grief, suggesting that there is no right or wrong way to deal with loss. Davis is a man who has amassed all of the preconceived signposts of success – marriage, a nine to five job, sleek modern home, etc. – only to realize that he feels empty inside, at which point he desperately starts to free himself of these material things. The film takes all of these social constructs that have come to represent a so-called successful life, and literally destroys them with the perhaps not so subtle metaphor of a sledgehammer.
I was reminded of that scene in the cult classic Donnie Darko, where Jake Gyllenhaal’s title character tells his teacher over a classroom discussion of Graham Greene’s The Destructors, that “destruction is a form of creation,” and the teenagers in the story “just want to see what happens when they tear the world apart.” This same philosophical reasoning could be applied to Demolition. Davis is the embodiment of reaching that point in your life where you let yourself free and just stop giving a shit about what other people think, and there is something cathartic and even primally relatable about watching him come to this realization, even if we are reluctant to admit it.
Although Demolition is sure to be a polarizing film, and it clearly won’t be for everyone, this almost unabashedly non-conformist punk rock attitude is part of what makes it so great, and precisely why I responded to it so well. This is an offbeat but completely engaging story of overcoming grief through wanton acts of destruction, that brings its metaphors full circle in the very moving final scenes, elevated every step of the way by another brilliant performance from Jake Gyllenhaal.