PLOT: After the tragic death of his wife, a successful investment banker finds everything around him falling apart. However, he soon finds some comfort in helping a struggling mother and her troubled son.
REVIEW: Jake Gyllenhaal has become one of the most exciting actors working today. His recent work in NIGHTCRAWLER, SOUTHPAW and ENEMY have continued to prove what a versatile talent he really is. In his latest, DEMOLITION, he once again takes on a very different character. In many ways, his Davis Mitchell is one of the most challenging that he’s taken on. He is an apathetic and sometimes unlikable man who can’t seem to connect to the world around him after the death of his wife. It is a compelling turn, but it is entangled in a slightly frustrating story of loss as well as rebirth. People deal with the death of a loved one in many different ways, but this is one of the most unusual examinations that I’ve seen in a long while.
When Davis Mitchell (Gyllenhaal) and his wife Julia (Heather Lind) are in a car accident, he recovers. Unfortunately his wife dies, leaving Davis’ to deal with her father Phil (Chris Cooper) and a strange desire to take things apart. As Davis sinks further into his own world, his job begins to suffer, as does the rest of his life. Frustrated by a vending machine that wouldn’t give him a candy bar at the hospital, he ends up writing an elaborate letter to the customer service department that owns the machine. All of this leads him to a strange introduction to Karen Moreno (Naomi Watts) and her troubled teenage son Chris (Judah Lewis). Soon Davis is in the middle of Karen’s tumultuous life, one that involves her jealous boyfriend.
Davis is a difficult character on many levels. He is hardly sympathetic, yet there is something about this portrait that is fascinating. The script by Bryan Sipe follows him on a downward spiral, but one that isn’t so much layered in grief, but a strange sense of freedom. The revelations made by Davis throughout reveal that he is far from the man we think he is. In fact, it seems that he isn’t who he himself thought he was. When he meets Karen and Chris, he appears to genuinely feel something for them. It isn’t really compassion, perhaps it is a need to fix them. After all, as the days pass by after the tragedy, he takes apart nearly everything he gets his hands on literally and figuratively.
As disconnected as Davis may be, it is when he begins to spend time with Karen and Chris that the film seems to find its heart. The relationship he shares with the young boy is a moving one, albeit in a very unexpected way. Young Judah Lewis is absolutely terrific here. Both he and Watts take on the dysfunctional mother and son with emotional depth, which is very different from the emptiness that Davis exhibits. While it was nice to see Watts and Gyllenhaal work together, it is really Lewis that steals the show. Much like the new found father figure Chris takes on, this teen is dealing with his own issues about who he really is.
Much of what made this film work also hinders it. It is near impossible to connect with Davis, at least until he finds a semblance of warmth with the mother and her son. However, it is refreshing to see a far from sentimental portrait of the effects of losing a loved one. For Davis, all the decisions he has made fall by the wayside. I’d be more than a little interested on what inspired the filmmakers on their dissection of Davis Mitchell and his grief. Thankfully Gyllenhaal at least makes him believably numb. The moments he shares with Julia’s father Phil almost make you angry. While Cooper’s grieving father isn’t always kind, he is clearly suffering more than his son-in-law. Should we understand why this man who had everything is throwing it all away? Probably, but at times it works not fully relating to his deconstruction.
Director Jean-Marc Vallée (DALLAS BUYERS CLUB, WILD) has crafted a very challenging movie. The performances are all good, even if it is at times impossible to really feel much for the film’s main character. Thankfully Gyllenhaal is able to pull it off. The real star however is Lewis as a troubled teenager. The young actor shows an impressive amount of depth, especially considering he isn’t always the most charming guy around. DEMOLITION is an effective drama, one that is more respectable than actually enjoyable. Unlike DALLAS BUYERS CLUB, this is a cold and calculated movie that is sometimes difficult to fully embrace.