James Cole Clay // Film Critic
The word subtlety does not exist in DEMOLITION, the latest drama starring Jake Gyllenhaal about a man who recently lost his wife in a car crash. He then goes through the stages of grief, which culminates in a destroyed (once gorgeous) modern home and some repaired feelings.
The film opens with Gyllenhaal’s Davis riding in the passenger seat with his wife (Heather Lind). They are having a conversation about mundane domestic stuff when they are struck by another vehicle. Davis’ wife dies, but all he cares about after the fact is seeking atonement from a vending machine company when his coveted peanut M&M’s get stuck in the machine.
He composes long-form essays in the form of hand-letters, which are read and responded to by Karen (Naomi Watts), a customer service rep who has some problems of her own. You have to feel bad for Watts’ character, who gets short shrift at every turn in service of Davis’ plight to mend his heart. There’s a friendship there, an instant chemistry that’s never used for anything thing else than to serve our leading man.
Director Jean-Marc Vallée (DALLAS BUYERS CLUB, WILD) is trying to find meaning in Davis’ apparent grief, but the emotions he’s feeling become uncomfortably unclear— possibly the whole point of his character. We get it, you’re a complicated guy with a pair of sunglasses, a disheveled tie and a three-day old stubble. Gyllenhaal isn’t bad in the film, but his character fails to deal with grief in any sort of way that resonates. We understand it when he blows off his father-in-law’s (Chris Cooper) advances to co-sign a scholarship in his wife’s memory, but when Vallée shuts out the audience with the same callousness, it becomes a problem to keep empathizing for Davis. He obviously doesn’t care about his dead spouse, and why should we?
The film is riddled with a clunky voiceover every time Davis feels the need to write another letter droning on about how he never loved his wife or doesn’t deserve his lucrative investment banking position. Screenwriter Bryan Sipe (THE CHOICE) gives us just enough information to know what he’s going through, but not enough to care. Davis becomes that person at the party whom you’ve met a couple of times and has never listened to a word you have to say.
We’ve just seen this movie before: Guy goes through some emotional trauma and becomes a cold and distant protagonist that we’re supposed to root and feel for. However, Vallée never shows us who Davis can be, besides a misanthropic man-child who apparently has a great insurance policy on his house.
For all the emotional weight supposedly put into DEMOLITION, it’s impossible for the story to be put into context of reality. Gyllenhaal might as well have jumped on the back of a raptor while riding through the deserts of Jakku on Marty McFly’s hover board— that would have way been more fun than watching him pout over his long lost peanut M&M’s.
DEMOLITION opens nationwide Friday.