Jake Gyllenhaal, Naomi Watts, Chris Cooper, Judah Lewis
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Demolition is an incredibly humane film. It does not judge its characters, and it refuses to have villains.
After losing his wife in a car crash, financier Davis Mitchell (Jake Gyllenhaal) also begins to lose his grip on his life. Fixating on a hospital vending machine that malfunctioned shortly after his wife’s death, Davis writes a rambling letter of complaint to the vending machine company, using it as a way to narrate his loss and confusion. This brings him into the lives of the company’s customer service manager, single mother Karen Moreno (Naomi Watts) and her rebellious teenage son, Chris (Judah Lewis). As Davis’ increasingly erratic behaviour angers his grieving father-in-law and employer (Chris Cooper) and undermines the foundations of his old life, he begins to see the possibility of a new life with Karen and Chris, but still he wrestles with a question he can’t answer: did he love his wife, or was he just going through the motions?
That’s a fairly rambling precis, but Demolition is a fairly rambling film that follows its central character through an erratic course of grief and self-discovery replete with quirky characters, seemingly unnecessary side-trips, fantasy sequences, an unreliable narrator, and the odd narrative non-sequitur. It does all come together, mind you, but for a while there, even while it’s enjoyable, it does seem like it’s ticking boxes in the Indie Dramedy Playbook. Comparisons to American Beauty are not uncalled for, especially when Chris Cooper is right there to reinforce them.
What elevates Demolition, though, is the strength of the performances animating it. Gyllenhaal once again demonstrates that he is one of the best actors of his generation, taking Davis on a believable course from numbness and alienation to catharsis. He finds solace in destruction, first taking apart objects that take his fancy – a fridge, light fittings, a computer – then volunteering for a demolition crew before realising that what he really wants to take apart is his life. Naomi Watts does subtler work; Karen is not a manic pixie dream girl dropped into the narrative to show our sad hero a better way of living, but a weary single mum doing her level best to keep treading water and smoking pot to take the edge off what is, even if it’s not explicitly stated, a stressful and unfulfilling existence. The MVP, however, is Judah Lewis as Chris: an angry, surly, foul-mouthed, classic rock loving, sexually confused kid who jumpstarts the film with his every appearance. The relationship between Davis and Chris is poignant and believable, moving from hostility to trust over the course of the film, and is arguably more central to the story than that between Davis and Karen. Lewis carries it with seemingly effortless aplomb.
Ultimately, Demolition is an incredibly humane film. It does not judge its characters, and it refuses to have villains; Chris Cooper’s grieving Master of the Universe could easily have been turned a few degrees to become a bad guy, but instead we’re allowed to see that he’s simply carrying a load of crushing grief as best he can. Even Karen’s boss/boyfriend (CJ Wilson), shown as something of an oaf with a tribal tattoo and, incongruously, a Joy Division t-shirt, is marked as a decent if un-self-aware man. Depicting but not judging life’s walking wounded seems to be director Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club, Wild) raison d’être, and Demolition is another solid entry in that line.