French-Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée has found a great deal of success in the past two years with his Oscar-nominated pictures Dallas Buyers Club and Wild, so it is a little bit of a surprise to see him so unfocused here. He has a more than capable cast at his disposal with the ever enticing Jake Gyllenhaal leading the charge, as a man who discovers his life has been something of a lie – after his wife dies in a car crash, which he survives.
Initially Davis Mitchell (Gyllenhaal) has what many would consider the perfect life: a beautiful, smart wife, a highly lucrative job in investment banking and a nice house in the New York state suburbs. While penning a therapeutic letter to a snack vending machine company – who are responsible for a machine that doesn’t dispense the requested sweets – Mitchell realises in mourning that his life has no substance. He admits that he barely understood his wife, his job was earned on “pure nepotism” (as the CEO is his father-in-law) and due to its nature there was never “anything physical you could hold in your hands” other than the profits made. Furthermore, Mitchell realises that he has merely coasted through life, not really paying attention to anyone and living purely through material objects.
So his newfound focus on “everything being a metaphor” is a believable, if not entirely original, conceit as this widower begins to see the world differently; he pays more attention to the world around him and finds the titular act of “demolition” particularly cathartic, especially when he destroys his own marital house. Gyllenhaal too does a decent job of showing the once fairly shallow Davis transforming into a more attenuative character.
The problem comes when Davis begins practising this in the real world. His new found freedom makes him a far more sympathetic character, but there’s no real progression of this idea throughout the film beyond: wife dies, realises stuff, makes some concessions at the end. It is claimed in the film that “total honesty is your thing” about the new-born Davis, which even he jokes about, as if this is a reason to explain the film’s spotty narrative.
Elsewhere, the film lacks much focus or direction. After a while, his continued letters to the vending company gets a response from a mysterious blonde. Eventually, they cross paths on Davis’ commuter train, and it turns that she is Karen Moreno (Naomi Watts) who let Davis into her life in a plutonic relationship, mostly out of sympathy for his soul through his letters. The film then becomes a dark, romantic comedy and for Karen’s son Chris (Judah Lewis), a coming of age tale which half-heartedly deals with his potentially burgeoning homosexuality. Troubling is Karen’s addiction to Marijuana and her boyfriend and boss Carl (C.J Wilson) who is a gun-toting “good guy” apparently.
While Davis is a more than polite guest in Karen and Chris’s lives, it is a problematic relationship that tries to make some slightly ill-conceived comment on class differences. The main point seems to be that the rich are a bit selfish, until someone dies and that the working class are not good at looking after themselves, but are more creatively expressive.
It’s a shame because Demolition – despite throwing several half-baked ideas at the screen – does has some genuine warmth to it. Gyllenhaal makes the best of a bad situation, delivering a strong performance that ranges from genuinely humorous, to emphathetic, to sad indifference. Lewis is excellent as the conflicted teenage son, but none of this really means anything without a properly realised narrative to back it up. One feels there is a great film rattling around in Demolition somewhere, it just required more care to truly realise it.