Death is a moment to the deceased, but to the living it is a process. Jean-Marc Vallée’s new film Demolition explores the impact of death on the living; not exactly new subject matter, but this is a case of excellent storytelling surpassing cliché.
Davis (Jake Gyllenhaal) is an investment banker whose life is uprooted when his wife Julia (Heather Lind) is killed in a car accident. Facing the stark reality that his marriage may have been a mistake, as well as a job that was pushed on him by his Father-In-Law Phil (Chris Cooper), Davis deconstructs his life and confides in the customer service department of a vending machine company. His tales of woe, masked as consumer complaints, result in a new connection to Karen (Naomi Watts) and her son Chris (Judah Lewis) - but will Davis take apart his life only to never put it back together?
The true beauty of this film is in its storytelling, specifically in the performances of its leads. Watts is a fascinating portrait of a single mother who stays with her boyfriend out of a need for security, and she is backed by a talented young performer in Lewis who plays the enigmatic Chris: a young man seeking direction in his life and his choices, which is why he connects so well to Davis. Cooper is in top form as well, crafting the subtleties of a grief-stricken father running the gamut of depression, rage, and motivation. Above all others, however, Gyllenhaal leads the charge with what is the next great performance in an increasingly brilliant (albeit eclectic) career. His wide-ranging talents are put to full use by Vallée, allowing Gyllenhaal the room to balance a disconnected character with his flashes of grief and grasps at satisfaction.
The only real drawback to the picture is a stylistic choice which is terribly difficult to avoid; namely, there are so many elements to the story that it can feel lengthy and somewhat bloated. Ultimately, however, it is such a complete story that there is no particular scene or plot line that could be removed without major restructuring (and potentially ruining) the narrative. As it stands, the film feels serialized rather than being one entire story, but the exceptional storytelling and interesting characters are enjoyable enough to nearly make this a non-issue.
The themes are certainly nothing new, and the film fits perhaps a little too strictly into its sub-genre. From the beginning, one can surmise the general direction that the film will take; but it is truly the journey, and not the destination, that matters. With superb storytelling backed by Bryan Sipe’s writing, Vallée (whose previous work includes 2013’s Dallas Buyers Club) makes perfect use of his phenomenal cast, particularly with the constantly impressive Gyllenhaal as the film’s foremost talent. This picture is by no means revolutionary, but it is one worth seeing - particularly to fans of Vallée, Gyllenhaal, or Dramedies in general.
Demolition is now playing at The Hyland Cinema.
3.5 (out of 5)
Thomas Vickers is a London-based filmmaker and The Beat Magazine's resident film critic.