Movie Review: ‘DEMOLITION’ builds a relatable and worthy story

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Bill Graham // Film Critic

DEMOLITION | 100 min | R
Director: Jean Marc-Vallee
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Naomi Watts, Chris Cooper and Heather Lind

There’s something unavoidable about bringing your own experiences and situations into a film. For me, DEMOLITION benefitted immensely by my own background and history.

Rarely do you see someone as unhinged as Davis (Jake Gyllenhaal) as the main character in a film. Having just lost his wife in a car accident, he is left trying to figure out what his life is even about. He seems distant– in a haze. Then, it is revealed he is keenly aware that he isn’t wrapped up in the emotions everyone else is. He’s an outsider living inside the machine of finance and normalcy that everyone else seems to enjoy. That is until he meets his match in Karen (Naomi Watts) by pure coincidence and they begin to form a bond that seems to help them both.

The film rarely gives us a chance to see Davis as normal and it is to our benefit. When we meet other people as adults, they’re fully formed. They don’t go over everything that has happened through their life instantly. It takes time to learn their past, but what we are confronted with is their present. It’s the foot they have to put forward.

I’ve met people in my own life that are like Davis and Karen. People that are just slightly off kilter. Sometimes the more you get to know them, the more they reveal themselves as different. I won’t use the word normal because that seems silly when talking about humans who are a million different ways from anyone else’s definition of what is normal.

But certainly, if you met a Davis or Karen, they’d tell you that they are a bit different. So it was a joy to see that represented beautifully by two wonderfully talented actors in Watts and Gyllenhaal. There are tics and patterns that they continue to present to the audience. And sure, some of the last third of the film feels a bit too self-correcting for it to ring true, but there’s something about witnessing someone derail that is both terrifying and fascinating to watch. Several audience members had to remind themselves that the film was just a fiction. No one is being hurt in reality. But to see it explored this vividly got under some people’s skin and certainly, I cringed in moments.

Naomi Watts and Jake Gyllenhaal star in DEMOLITION.

Naomi Watts and Jake Gyllenhaal star in DEMOLITION.

The fact is that a lot of the film revolves around Davis’ ability to seemingly have these wild adventures because he is wealthy. And yes, that’s certainly true. But that doesn’t make him completely unrelatable. How often do you see someone work a 9-5 shift in a film for eight hours? They don’t. Shortcuts are taken. So we see someone that has wealth and privilege and you realize maybe the psychotic nature of Gyllenhaal’s character in NIGHTCRAWLER and the fact that writer/director Dan Gilroy’s prediction that that character would end up as the CEO of a Fortune 500 company within the next few years just might be more real than you’d like to believe.

Is Davis unhinged? Certainly compared to most, but he uses that to great effect at work where his dead wife’s father, Phil (Chris Cooper), is his boss. When Davis shows up to work the weekend after the funeral Phil decides to simply pull him out for drinks and encourage him to take some time off. But Davis’ mind doesn’t work like that. He can’t simply grieve. He has to feel something. We learn various nuances of his character. He loves hard work. He also likes exploring the ins and outs of things, amusingly leaving deconstructed items in his wake at various points.

Towards the end the figurative deconstruction and rebuilding of his life becomes considerably more literal but by that time I was too invested in Davis’ story to want it to stop short. I haven’t been the biggest fan of director Jean-Marc Vallee’s last film, WILD, but I could respect the decisions behind it. Here, yet again, he blends some eery flashes from inside the character’s mind in the form of visions that aren’t happening in the present. Flashbacks are almost like fever dreams instead of feeling similar to our present.

While much of this review has focused on Davis, it is actually Karen that I found the most compelling throughout. She sees vulnerability and a kindred spirit in Davis, and I won’t spoil how they meet because it is a real treat to see how it plays out. But she is wounded and vulnerable just like Davis. She is floating through her life, trying her best to raise her young teenage son as a single mother and wondering how she can reconnect with him. It’s startling how lifelike she is. Her character jumps off the screen and it is Watts to truly commend for this.

Part of the beauty is how Karen and Davis balance each other. You’d be forgiven for wanting a proper romance here but I think what they use each other for is to have that person that keeps the other afloat. It’s always interesting to see two people that resist the world’s temptation to see them get together and instead simply remain friends. You can practically hear the whispers of the neighbors and of course, at various points, this is turned into audible complaints from the other characters. Friendship between genders when you get to a certain age is looked upon with suspicion and it’s something I have to admit to as well at times.

There’s heavy handed themes and realities thrown at Davis and Karen. Some of the twists and turn feel played out and some, like the finale, feels a bit of a course-correction. I don’t mind happy endings, and I certainly can understand the temptation to give one. But the fact is that the journey to the end is worth the price of admission if you can handle a story that doesn’t follow your average protagonist. You are in for a bumpy, worthy ride with DEMOLITION.

DEMOLITION opens today.

About author

Preston Barta

Hello, there! My name is Preston Barta, and I am the features editor of Fresh Fiction and senior film critic at the Denton Record-Chronicle. My cinematic love story began where I was born: off planet on the isolated desert world of the Jakku system. It's there I passed the time scavenging for loose parts with my good friend Rey. One day I found an old film projector and a dusty reel of the 1975 film JAWS. It rocked my world so much that I left my kinfolk in the rearview (I so miss their morning cups of green milk) to pursue my dreams of writing about film. It wasn't long until I met two gents who said they would give me a lift. I can't recall their names, but one was an older man who liked to point a lot and the other was a tall, hairy fella. They got me as far as one of Jupiter's moons where we crossed paths with the U.S.S. Enterprise. Some pointy-eared bastard said I was clear to come aboard. He saw that I was clutching my beloved shark movie and invited me to the "moving pictures room" where he was screening the 1993 film JURASSIC PARK to his crew. He said my life would be much more prosperous if I were familiar with more work by the god named Steven Spielberg. From there, my love for cinema blossomed. Once we reached planet Earth, everything changed. I found the small town of Denton, TX, and was welcomed into the Barta family. They showed me the writings of local film critic Boo Allen. He became my hero and caused me to chase a degree in film and journalism. After my studies at graduate of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, I met some film critics who showed me the ropes and got me into my first press screening: 2011's THE GREEN LANTERN. Don't worry; I recovered just fine. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD was only four years away.