After an Oscar-winning biopic (Dallas Buyers Club) and an Oscar-nominated follow-up (Wild), Jean-Marc Vallée has sauntered back into fiction with his newest feature, Demolition. A noisily edited and heavily voice-overed dive into the psyche of all mankind, Demolition punctuates drama with black comedy and shards of wisdom that reflect what is only a small piece of the bigger picture.
Brought together by their mutual love for a viral video and money (and slowly torn apart by a creeping apathy), Davis (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Julia (Heather Lind) Mitchell have the sort of life people make movies about, but screenwriter Bryan Sipe cannot work solely in tropes, so he does away with Julia before the end of the first scene. Rich, alone and devoid of any human emotion (think Nightcrawler’s Louis Bloom with less talking and a shaved chest), Davis finds an outlet for his unwitting grief in the composition of complaint letters. Writing to the vending machine company responsible for withholding Peanut M&M’s just moments after his wife’s death, the investment banker’s request for a $1.25 refund turns into a truthful rant, requiring four parts in order to fully disclose. On the receiving end of these surprisingly cold and brutally honest essays is Karen Moreno (Naomi Watts), the sole employee in the vending machine’s customer service department and single mother of a teenage boy. Dealing with issues of her own, Karen latches herself to the “grieving” widower, seeing him as guru of truth, through which she too may be saved.
Demolition thrives in the breaks in action where the audience is free to let their minds wander and contemplate the many philosophical abstractions Vallée and Sipe have spliced into their narrative. Reiterated throughout, Davis and Karen are confronted with assertions that they live life wearing blinders and never truly stop to appreciate what they have. Presented via flashbacks of a ghostly Julia, Davis’ inattention to life is a reflection of humanity, and his penchant for blunt truth serving as an inspiring example for us all. “Appreciate every day” is advice on par with “eat healthy and exercise” or “the truth will set you free,” in that, while relatively sage, they become meaningless when filtered through the complexities of day-to-day life. Sure, any of these encouragements would look good embroidered on a pillow, but when placed within the confines of Demolition’s dark and largely uncaring world, these tokens are too far-reaching to have any cogent impact.
One interesting side-effect of these impotent motifs is that they circle some deeply penetrating assertions concerning the power of the written word and the lasting impact that even the simplest of notes can have on people. Davis is supposedly gaining emotional freedom through the dismantling of his life (via the deconstruction of almost everything around him), and yet it seems as though it is the collection of his thoughts that releases this burden. Free to let his mind wander and to let the truth flow from the tip of his pen, Davis’ demolition of his surroundings feels like little more than a ruse concocted by his subconscious to create an illusion of healing. Extending to Karen’s strained relationship with her teenage son, a letter we never see her write (yet one she reads over footage of something else entirely) displays a broken woman as lost and as terrified as her son. Post-its left by Julia serve as Davis’ only connection to his deceased wife; these one-sentence blurbs contain more of her personality and warmth than any of his distorted and fleeting memories. Far too busy with the action-packed destruction of the Mitchell home and with the emotional damage inflicted in the wake of a young woman’s death, Vallée brushes over the single most profound modicum of enlightenment that his film presents, treating it like an afterthought of narrative exposition.
There is enough contained within Demolition to draw audiences in and to keep them quietly entertained for the duration, yet little remains when the lights go up. Neatly tied resolutions and dime-a-dozen aphorisms feel as fleeting and immaterial as a television drama, while any lasting impression must be hard-fought and pried from between the lines of the script. Jean-Marc Vallée’s use of big-name, talented actors has helped him tell compelling and emotional stories of biographical struggle, but without the sharp sting of reality, Demolition feels aimless in its exploration of life and love.
Jordan Brooks (@viewtoaqueue) is an increasingly-snobby cinefile based out of London, England. As a contributor to several online publications, including his own blog, he has succeeded in fulfilling his life long dream of imposing strong opinions on others.