With “Demolition,” French-Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallee establishes himself as an auteur. Having directed “Dallas Buyers Club” and “Wild,” themes and patterns start to emerge. All three films deal with the paper thin line between life and death; how death informs life, inspiring people to live harder, live sweeter, to the extreme. In these films, death is something that makes the living push the boundaries of life as far and as hard as they can.
Vallee has a talent for wordy, writerly scripts, and “Demolition” is no exception. Written by Bryan Sipe, the screenplay uses an epistolary device to let us in on our protagonist’s inner life. The leading man is Davis (Jake Gyllenhaal), who begins to write letters to the customer service department of a vending machine company in the immediate aftermath of his wife Julia’s (Heather Lind) death in a car accident.
It’s a strange coping mechanism, to be sure. But it’s clear that it’s much easier to write a letter to a vending machine company because he was jilted out of $1.25 and a bag of peanut M&Ms, than to the driver of the car that slammed into his, or to the doctors who could not save her. The customer service department is his only outlet, an anonymous source to whom he can confess his thoughts about his marriage (just OK), his job (investment banking), his demanding father-in-law (his boss, played by Chris Cooper).
But the customer service department is a person, Karen (Naomi Watts), and she reaches out, tentatively, proffering a nugget of compassion, an escape from his perfectly regimented and designed life. Her friendship, perhaps a catalyst, coincides with Davis’ breakdown. That word is quite literal in this case, at least in the environmental sense.
Numb inside, Davis starts to break down everything he can — taking apart computers, bathroom doors, appliances, just to see how they work. He pays a construction boss to let him ferociously tear down dry wall with a sledgehammer; in so doing, he steps on a nail and howls in joy, thrilled with the feeling of pain. He entreats Karen’s son to shoot him in his Kevlar-vested chest, he listens to blisteringly loud music and dances in the street. He sheds social expectations and norms, his career and family cast aside as collateral damage.
While Davis is breaking down to get himself back together, there are a few moments that tend toward a bit too twee. But there’s an emotional honesty in the treatment of his grief. Just because it’s different doesn’t make it any less valid, and “Demolition” always treats it as such. There’s a beauty in the breakdown, and it’s amongst the rubble that Davis finds himself living, rather than enduring, his life.
Vallee and cinematographer Yves Belanger bring their naturalistic but rigorous approach to the film, at once stylish but not overly obtrusive. Ultimately, the filmmaking allows for the writing and the performances to shine.
Gyllenhaal brings a sense of wide-eyed sweet boyishness to the deadpan Davis, who could have been a jerk in another performer’s hands. But the true find is newcomer Judah Lewis as Chris, Karen’s young gay son. He’s bold, androgynous, naively confident, startlingly delicate. The two are oddball outsiders who just get each other, a connection that’s all anyone can hope for in this life.
☆ ☆ ☆ 1/2 (out of 4)
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Naomi Watts, Chris Cooper, Heather Lind, Judah Lewis.
Director: Jean-Marc Vallee.
Running time: 100 minutes.
Rating: R for language, some sexual references, drug use and disturbing behavior.