Demolition compares the process of grief from the death of a loved one to the process of birth: messy, painful, there is some screaming, but by the end of it there is the possibility of beauty.
Director Jean-Marc Vallee has crafted a film that sketches the irregularity and randomness of an ordinary life with a brain surgeon’s precision. The whole enterprise should collapse because of its strange mix of broadly comedic and darkly introspective tones, but somehow it all feels natural and right.
Jake Gyllenhaal plays Davis, an investment banker who leads a blameless life. So blameless that at one point in the film he begins to question whether he ever made a choice or whether he was just along for a comfortable ride. His wife dies within the first few minutes of the film. It’s sudden and unfair. At the funeral when he’s alone in the bathroom, he screws up his face and tries to cry but there is nothing. His face relaxes and he squints in mild annoyance, much how you or I would squint if we turned on a faucet and no water came out.
Through a quirky plot device that threatens to be a little too twee for its own good, he embarks on an innocent relationship with an emotionally stunted pothead customer service rep, Karen played by Naomi Watts and her sexually confused but bright 15 year old son, Chris played by Judah Lewis. It’s here that we understand that Davis’ grieving process is an entrenchment back into childhood. His father in law, played by the reliably great Chris Cooper, tells Davis that “Repairing the heart is like repairing an automobile. You have to take everything apart before you put it back together.” Like a child, Davis takes this poetical bit of wisdom far too literally and begins ripping apart everyday appliances, hoping that deconstruction will gift him with understanding. With no greater understanding granted, his innocent curiosity sours into a nihilistic lust for destruction and he takes a sledgehammer (literally) to the life he once knew.
The cinematography is appealing and gorgeous in a low key way. Jean-Marc Vallee has a keen eye for beautiful shots and compositions without being overly ostentatious and showy about it. Like in his previous feature Wild, quick snippets of a lovely past collide with the desolate present. These sequences are startlingly affecting and portray grief better than any writerly platitude ever could.
The writing is mostly solid and definitely unsubtle. And that’s okay because this film wears its heart on its sleeve with such appealing earnestness and is bolstered by such honest performances that it would seem churlish to roll your eyes at its blatant metaphors (sledgehammers, anyone?). Jake Gyllenhaal gives another all-timer of a performance, making Davis’ alarmingly straight talking personality and madness seem bizarrely unreal and embarrassingly real at the same time – he walks that tightrope without a misstep. Judah Lewis is a terrific find as the precocious 15 year old Chris. He has a confident screen presence and effortlessly bounces off of the likes of Gyllenhaal. It’s their oddball relationship that is Demolition’s sloppy, beating heart. Vallee gives Naomi Watts enough room to imbue Karen with a quiet and sad believability that, unfortunately, is not present in the script.
Demolition is an honest depiction of how grief can make us selfish and dislodged. The film has the good sense to find the despondency and humour in this, to be relentlessly entertaining and affecting.
Catch Demolition‘s second screening at the Revelation Film Festival on Wednesday July 13 at Luna Leederville. For tickets for this and all Revelation Film Festival events, visit the Luna Palace website here.