Despite Gyllenhaal’s praiseworthy performance, Demolition is an unremarkable film that will hardly be remembered as one of Vallée’s finest works

Demolition (2015)

Di­rect­ed by Jean-Marc Val­lée. Writ­ten by Bryan Sipe. Star­ring Jake Gyl­len­haal, Nao­mi Watts, Chris Coop­er, Ju­dah Lewis, De­bra Monk and Heather Lind.

Jean-Marc Val­lée is one di­rec­tor I ad­mire. Af­ter his break­through with the ex­cep­tion­al C.R.A.Z.Y. (2005) in his na­tive Québec, he went on to gain in­ter­na­tion­al recog­ni­tion with the sol­id Dal­las Buy­ers Club (2013) and the great Wild (2014) — both which meant Os­car nom­i­na­tions for Matthew Mc­Conaugh­ey, Jared Leto, Reese With­er­spoon and Lau­ra Dern (with Mc­Conaugh­ey and Leto tak­ing home the award). Thus, it is a real pity to see Val­lée fol­low those re­mark­able films with De­mo­li­tion, which may not be a com­plete dis­as­ter (far from that) but will hard­ly be re­mem­bered as one of his finest works either.

Once again in charge of a film not script­ed by him­self (of all his works, he only wrote Café de Flo­re (2011) and co-wrote C.R.A.Z.Y.), Val­lée makes us won­der why he took the job in the first place. Writer Bryan Sipe has nev­er made any­thing rel­e­vant and De­mo­li­tion feels more like an in­ter­lude in Val­lée’s fil­mog­ra­phy be­fore some­thing bet­ter. Sipe’s schemat­ic plot fol­lows Davis (Jake Gyl­len­haal), a phleg­mat­ic in­vest­ment banker who los­es his wife in a car accident.

In­ca­pable of cry­ing or feel­ing any grief, his at­ten­tion is de­vi­at­ed by an in­signif­i­cant prob­lem with a vend­ing ma­chine that prompts him to start writ­ing com­plaint let­ters to the ma­chine com­pa­ny. Soon, these let­ters be­gin to as­sume the char­ac­ter of per­son­al con­fes­sions — an un­sub­tle but ef­fec­tive way of drown­ing us with ex­po­si­tion about his life — and they catch the at­ten­tion of cus­tomer ser­vice rep Karen (Nao­mi Watts). The two form a strange con­nec­tion, and, with her help and the help of her son Chris (Ju­dah Lewis), Davis re­al­izes that he must re­build his life through the (metaphor alert!) de­mo­li­tion of his old one.

As any­one can imag­ine from the de­scrip­tion above, this is a nar­ra­tive based on metaphors like those that shaped Paulo Coel­ho’s ca­reer and made him a mil­lion­aire. But the film does­n’t both­er to make that any sub­tle. In fact, it open­ly em­braces those metaphors (the char­ac­ter even ac­knowl­edges their near-meta­phys­i­cal ex­is­tence around him), ap­par­ent­ly be­liev­ing that such recog­ni­tion makes their use quirki­er and clever. It does­n’t, and the way they are pre­sent­ed can be pret­ty ob­vi­ous at times, like when we see a lamp switch on at a mean­ing­ful mo­ment or when Davis has a pan­ic at­tack and it seems that part of his heart is miss­ing. Fun­ny, but not an ex­am­ple of subtlety.

Re­gard­less, it is a dra­mat­ic choice that fits well with the ef­fec­tive way it ex­tracts hu­mor from odd oc­cur­rences in the char­ac­ter’s life (like a mys­te­ri­ous sta­tion wag­on that seems to fol­low him every­where) and his bizarre ap­a­thy to­ward his wife’s death. Davis os­cil­lates be­tween a blasé at­ti­tude with re­gard to every­thing and a strange be­hav­ior that makes us some­times think he is men­tal­ly de­ranged. This works for the best, be­cause it gives him new lay­ers as a char­ac­ter. If there is one thing that the movie does usu­al­ly right is his char­ac­ter­i­za­tion as a mod­ern Mer­sault from Al­bert Ca­mus’s The Stranger, judged and con­demned by every­one for not be­hav­ing like “nor­mal” peo­ple are ex­pect­ed to in hu­man society.

Gyl­len­haal de­serves praise for the way he com­pos­es such a char­ac­ter. He is one of the best ac­tors of his gen­er­a­tion and de­served an Os­car for his per­for­mances in Pris­on­ers (2013) and Night­crawler (2014). In De­mo­li­tion, he is­n’t far be­hind. As he nar­rates the sto­ry of his life with a grip­ping elo­quence in his let­ters (and shows us a lot about him­self in the process), his char­ac­ter be­comes fas­ci­nat­ing with his ec­cen­tric­i­ties — from the sus­penders he wears to his ob­ses­sion with rip­ping things apart to see what they look like in­side. Gyl­len­haal man­ages to flesh him into a be­liev­able per­son, and I ad­mire the film’s al­most con­stant use of shal­low fo­cus to blur the back­ground and em­pha­size his dis­con­nec­tion with the world.

And while Gyl­len­haal only grows as an ac­tor (and even be­comes more phys­i­cal­ly at­trac­tive the old­er he gets), Nao­mi Watts con­tin­ues in her dis­ap­point­ing path as a tal­ent­ed ac­tress who now shows up in about three lame films for every The Im­pos­si­ble (2012) that stands out. Here, as in the mediocre St. Vin­cent (2014), she be­longs in the nar­ra­tive cor­ner, play­ing a char­ac­ter who is more of a walk­ing cliché than a real per­son. Chris Coop­er, on the oth­er hand, gets to of­fer an­oth­er in­tense sup­port­ing per­for­mance (in a ca­reer full of them) as the in­creas­ing­ly ex­as­per­at­ed fa­ther-in-law who can­not un­der­stand Davis’ way of deal­ing with his pain (which he nat­u­ral­ly as­sumes he has).

To com­plete the cast, Ju­dah Lewis dis­plays a fine chem­istry with Gyl­len­haal that helps us get closer to their grow­ing re­la­tion­ship and even laugh at the ab­sur­di­ty of see­ing, for in­stance, Davis give a gun to a mi­nor and ask him to shoot at him. Or when he gives the boy the most aw­ful ad­vice about his sex­u­al­i­ty. As a char­ac­ter, Chris is a tough one to like at first, but lat­er on, we get used to his pres­ence and how he is sup­posed to be Davis’ metaphor­i­cal lever (like his moth­er) to lit­er­al­ly break through his emo­tion­al stu­por. And it can be quite en­joy­able and fun­ny to see the two in­ter­act as they try to help each other.

It is be­cause the movie has so much po­ten­tial that it feels so ir­ri­tat­ing (but not sur­pris­ing) to see the kind of nar­ra­tive tricks that it pulls off to ap­pear more nu­anced than it re­al­ly is. They in­clude an un­nec­es­sary, last-minute rev­e­la­tion in the third act (two, ac­tu­al­ly) and a gra­tu­itous mo­ment that shows, in par­al­lel, two scenes of ag­gres­sion that have no cor­re­la­tion with each oth­er (not even the­mat­ic). Even though these mis­steps could have been left out, at least they don’t ruin the fi­nal result.

Punc­tu­at­ed by the songs Crazy on You by Heart and La Bo­hème by Charles Az­navour, De­mo­li­tion may be too con­ven­tion­al in its struc­ture but is charm­ing enough in the way it tells its sto­ry. And for a movie whose main metaphor­i­cal mes­sage is ba­si­cal­ly “run for­wards, not back­wards,” it does de­liv­er what it sets out to. It just won’t be re­mem­bered in the fu­ture as a great ex­am­ple of storytelling.


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