Monday, April 11, 2016
Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée
After Dallas Buyers Club and Wild, director Jean-Marc Vallée completes his trilogy of lost souls with his latest film, Demolition. Much like Wild, the film is a histrionic meditation on grief through the point-of-view of someone who mourns self-destructively. Vallée is working with Jake Gyllenhaal here, and for a filmmaker who seems to adore visceral visualization of emotion, Gyllenhaal seems like a perfect match. The 35-year-old actor has spent the last few years abandoning the concept of himself as a heartthrob, and revealing himself to be an incredibly immersive character actor. His performance here is strong, playing an exorbitantly wealthy finance man who's never worked hard for anything in his life who suddenly finds himself saddled with an array of unfamiliar feelings after the sudden, tragic death of his wife. Some may remember Gyllenhaal also starring in the 2002 film Moonlight Mile which pretty much had the same premise (in that film, it was a fiance that died). That film was sentimental - and was one of those early 00's indies that felt more like the director's Spotify playlist than a complete film. It took the usual course of action where these kinds of stories are concerned, containing a kind of mushy, heartfelt-ness that was a bit too sweet for the few who actually saw it. Both films concerned an ambivalent love upended by tragedy, but Demolition does not mince words about the behavior of its protagonist. It's hard to think of a more unlikeable character in which the audience is asked to expel so much empathy for.
Actually, as a matter of fact, I can think of one: Matthew McConaughey's Ron Woodroof in Dallas Buyers Club. That Vallée film is probably his biggest American hit, but its the one I found the most unappealing. The French-Canadian director seems to have little idea of what to do with morally complicated characters; his only move is to lionize them, to make his films beg the audience not only for their forgiveness but for their unending love. For Woodroof, his AIDS diagnosis is supposed to help us admire his pilfering of the gay community for his own financial gain - Vallée spins his despicable behavior and homophobia into heroism. In Demolition, Gyllenhaal plays Davis Mitchell, a man who has failed upward, sleepwalking through life with an almost sociopathic detachment, but the film wants us to understand his erratic actions because of the sudden death of his wife, Julia (Heather Lind). She dies after another car T-bones them as they're driving off the Manhattan bridge; Davis is sitting in the passenger seat and is cruelly left with nothing but a few scratches. After Julia's father, Phil (Chris Cooper), informs Davis of Julia's passing, he walks to a vending machine that takes his money but leaves his peanut butter M&Ms dangling, out of reach. The hospital staff isn't very sympathetic to his plight and new found hunger. At the wake, in the home of Phil and Julia's mother, Margot (Polly Draper), Davis does not mingle with weeping family members nor does he make himself available to be spoken to. He sits at a desk and writes a letter of complaint to the company that owns the vending machine. In the letter, hoping to be thorough in his claim, he documents not only the M&Ms, but the death of his wife and the vapidness of the marriage that preceded it.
Davis continues to write more letters, each one getting more personal and intimate. Meanwhile, he shows no emotion over Julia's death, and in fact becomes overcome by a numb apathy that spills over into all aspects of his life. Aside from the letter-writing, his only other interest thing comes from taking electronics apart. He starts with his leaky refrigerator, which he reduces to a few dozen pieces spread across his kitchen floor. He then proceeds to disassemble various things, including bathroom lights at his in-law's and a bathroom stall at work. Phil wants Davis to see a specialist, but Davis finds his own therapy in his two new hobbies. When Phil suggests establishing a scholarship in Julia's name to cement her legacy, Davis can barely even pretend to be enthusiastic. Things take an odd turn when Davis receives a 2AM phone call from a customer service representative at the vending machine company he's been writing his over-sharing letters to. The representative is Karen Moreno (Naomi Watts), a lonely pothead and single mother who reads Davis' letters in her tub and has decided to give him personal calls in a fragrant display of unprofessionalism (at least she admits it). Karen and Davis end up becoming friends as they pool their sudden rush of aimlessness. Karen's son, Chris (Judah Lewis), is a colorful personality of his own. He listens to classic rock, his bedroom walls covered with posters of David Bowie and Creem Magazine. He's suspended from school for telling graphic stories about America's occupation of the Middle East and he uses the word 'fuck' a lot. Davis installs himself in Karen and Chris' home, in a situation so dysfunctional, Vallée seems to find it endearing.
Gyllenhaal is the kind of actor that will take this character to its most extreme, and Davis' transition from a manscaping, suspenders-laden NYC suit to a scruffy, crazed version of Chaplin's Tramp is definitely entertaining just as an exercise in strong performance work. But it's up to Vallée to contextualize this behavior, to give it the ultimate meaning and help us understand that this is actually a soul-searching endeavor and not a hedonistic, navel-gazing exploration into Davis' Id. There's something admirable about Demolition's honesty, and its screenplay (written by Bryan Sipe) has some wonderfully poignant moments where the characters find a real center. Everyone has a story worth telling, but it's all for not if the storyteller drops the ball. The supporting performances from Watts and Cooper have their moments, with Cooper in particular given a lot of strong scenes - he's certainly easy to empathize with considering how long it takes for his patience to fray at the hands of Davis' direct disrespect of him and Julia. As young Chris, Judah Lewis is given a heavy narrative burden, the kind of weight that most young actors have trouble dealing with. Lewis' performance here is fine and his chemistry with Gyllenhaal gives the movie a few moments of unexpected tenderness. Demolition avoids certain obvious plot devices, but runs square into a few others. Its grasp on the severity of the situation it presents comes and goes. The film's violent swings from cynicism to sincerity will leave you spinning and its ending feels inconclusive in a way that's not exactly bad, but feels like patchwork after some unprepared-for disaster. But the performances here are good, and it's worth seeing as another notch in Gyllenhaal's streak of excellent work.