On a seemingly unremarkable morning commute, Davis Mitchell (Jake Gyllenhaal) is sitting in the passenger seat half-listening to his wife Julia (Heather Lind) as she implores him to fix the leaky refrigerator back at home. This mundane scene from a marriage is violently upended by a deadly car accident, in which Julia is killed but Davis emerges unscathed. We immediately cut to the hospital where a disoriented Davis is still piecing together what has happened. Hungry, he goes to purchase a pack of M&Ms from a vending machine and watches helplessly as it dangles from its hook, unattainable. He takes a picture of the vending machine’s posted contact information. He’s not done with this.
This action, which opens Demolition, represents the most agency Davis displays during this time of crisis. He is almost unnervingly emotionless about the loss of his wife. He tries to force tears in the bathroom during Julia’s funeral, but they do not materialize. He attempts to immediately resume his work as a financial bigwig for his father-in-law Phil (Chris Cooper) as though nothing has transpired. The only outpouring of anything comes in the form of a series of stream-of-consciousness letters Davis writes to the vending machine company, where he overshares exuberantly, if dispassionately, about his life and frame of mind. In the weeks following the accident, Davis begins to display some curious behavior. He no longer appears to possess any self-awareness nor filter toward what he says and he takes up a destructive habit of dismantling and demolishing anything he can get his hands on.
Demolition is a hard nut to crack for the longest time. At first it seems like a portrait of a sociopath, a man utterly bereft of any true feeling or emotion. We spend the entire film locked into Davis’ frame of mind, experiencing everything through his cracked mindset, which makes it difficult for us to glean exactly what is going on with the guy from moment to moment, since he himself never seems to know. For a time, there’s uncomfortable humor in watching this guy steamroll haphazardly through life, no longer even thinking to behave like a rational, tactful human being. At first, much of Davis’ strangeness is excused by others due to the horrific loss he has just endured, but as his demeanor grows progressively odder, that slack stops being cut. As a character study of a man losing his connection to reality, the film is compelling.
Yet Demolition grows increasingly disjointed, and that disjointedness ultimately begins to snowball exponentially as the film keeps rolling along. Davis’ letters end up profoundly touching the vending machine company’s customer service representative, Karen Moreno (Naomi Watts), who makes the unprofessional decision to reach out to their author. Davis becomes fixated on meeting this mystery woman, whose life is out of sorts, with a delinquent son Chris (Judah Lewis) she can’t begin to control, an ill-advised affair with her boss and a near-constant penchant for smoking weed.
It’s with this development that Demolition loses its grip the most. The film doesn’t seem to know how to integrate these characters into the mix in any organic way. Despite Watts’ best efforts, her character never really registers. Davis ends up bonding with Chris, emerging as the precise worst male role model an already troubled kid could have. Again, there are squirmy laughs to be had here, such as Davis instructing Chris to shoot him in his bulletproof-vest-covered chest or enlisting the boy to help him demolish his lush, expensive home, but the film simply doesn’t get across how these characters fit into his orbit. An 11th-hour tragedy feels especially tacked on.
Gyllenhaal, unsurprisingly, is Demolition’s MVP. Similar to his character in 2014’s grossly underrated Nightcrawler, the actor is at his best embodying a character whose bubble is well off-center. He has emerged as one of the best actors currently working and this is yet another magnetic performance for his resume. It’s just hard to accept how little Demolition amounts to after such an engaging first half. The film is ultimately about the grieving process, which is the most obvious road this story could have taken after seeming, for the longest time, to be building to something much stranger and more intriguing with its protagonist. The button on Davis’ journey is so saccharine that it’s difficult to square it with the more dangerous and uneasy places the character’s journey seemed to be headed earlier on. The film ultimately comes off as something of a riff on American Beauty, right down to the severe presence of Cooper, when it feels like the potential was present for something more than that. Demolition is a worthwhile effort overall, but the true grief to be found is for the real wild card of a film that it seemed so close to being.
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