Movies about disconnected, mentally ill people are nothing new. As a matter of fact, it’s often an obligatory role that actors will often go for to give them some awards attention. However, in those kinds of movies, there is often a sense that the main character is just troubled for now, but will find his way eventually. After all, these awards conscious movies have to have some kind of over arching message after all, and what’s a socially awkward character without redemption. Demolition however, is in many ways a whole other animal. This isn’t a film that’s particularly interested in redeeming it’s deeply grief stricken characters so much as it is an excuse to study them as they carry on. That may be an unsatisfying notion for many, but then there’s me.
The film opens with Davis Mitchel (Jake Gyllenhaal), a successful investment banker, losing his wife in a horrific car accident. However, he frankly seems more disturbed by his peanut M&Ms getting stuck in the hospital vending machine than he is by the loss of his life partner. In fact, he doesn’t seem to care about much of anything, much to the extreme aggravation of Phil (Chris Cooper), his grieving father in law/boss. Davis becomes fascinated by destruction, wanting nothing more than to break apart all of the material possessions he acquired of the course of his marriage. Meanwhile, he befriends Karen (Naomi Watts), a customer service rep at the vending machine company who becomes moved by his detailed complaint letters, and her young son Chris (Judah Lewis).
Demolition paints itself into a deep corner by pinning the story on a character as challenging as Davis. Since we’re essentially centering on a borderline sociopath, who has to force himself to relate to the death of his own wife, the entire narrative could have easily collapsed if the actor didn’t pull it of just right. Fortunately, we have Gyllenhaal, who has become something of a master of these kinds of characters as of late. Essentially dialing down his Nightcrawler persona into somebody who could at least somewhat function in normal society, he masterfully pulls the audience into every word Davis says. He’s an absolutely puzzling individual, but Gyllenhaal finds something about him that is absorbing and completely human. Watts and Cooper play their notes just right, even if their characters are slight cliches, but the real break-out supporting star here is Lewis. Chris is a boy with perhaps as much of a disconnection from society as Davis, and when the movie turns into a bonding story between these two odd-balls, that’s when it really kicks into gear. There’s something very realistic about the way these characters very naturalistically relate, and the film is smart enough to just let them be without forcing them into a trite direction.
Jean-Marc Valee, who previously directed Dallas Buyers Club and Wild, proves once again that he is very adept at character study. Scenes will occasionally be a bit curt, as if he’s trying to make us as disconnected from our surroundings as Davis is. That said, his direction here isn’t showy, only occasionally opting to let anything but his characters do the storytelling. He’s here to let his actors act, often exuding a similar vibe that David O Russell did with Silver Linings Playbook. He keeps everything moving at a nimble pace, ensuring that we aren’t stuck focusing on one piece of Davis’ grief for too long. There’s also a really nice conclusion here rising only just to the point it needs to to feel poetic and dramatic, while not shoving the messages down the audience’s throat.
While perhaps not a movie that will be super memorable once the more sizable dramas of the year come into play, Demolition is a solid drama that occasionally has moments as destructive as it’s main character. Gyllenhaal is given yet another showcase for his undeniable talent, while Valee delivers a story that may leave some feeling a little cold if they’re expecting that’s a bit more Hollywood, but may surprise those with an open mind. If you’re trying to dodge all of the superheroes, bullets, and Melissa McCarthys in theaters right now, you may want to grab a bulldozer and crash into this one.