Review: Demolition (TIFF 2015)
PLOT: Following the death of his wife, a young businessman (Jake Gyllenhaal) starts ripping apart his perfectly ordered life in an attempt to find meaning.
REVIEW: DEMOLITION is the perfect example of a film that should have been an absolute slam-dunk but just goes terribly awry early-on and never recovers. The latest from Jean-Marc Vallée, this is way more in-line with his divisive CAFÉ DE FLORE than his more recent American efforts, DALLAS BUYERS CLUB and WILD. Incredibly ambitious, Vallée's purposely made a difficult film and while his creativity should be applauded, the movie itself never seems like anything more than an experiment. It'll work for some (and sure enough, some of the early reviews are positive) but mainstream audiences will likely be left cold by this meandering effort.
Jake Gyllenhaal's been on an incredible run as of late (which festival head Cameron Bailey dubbed #JakeQuake during his opening remarks) and while the movie is a mess, Gyllenhaal is reliably good. On the surface, there are some similarities to NIGHTCRAWLER, with him once again playing a highly ambiguous type. More upset at a vending machine that stole his quarters than his wife's death, much of the first part of the film uses Gyllenhaal's confessional letters to the vending company's customer service department to explore his inner life. Emotionally distant to the point that he seems to be somewhere on the autistic spectrum, with anyone else by Gyllenhaal in the lead, DEMOLITION might have become un-watchable very early on, but it's a testament to his talent that he keeps us interested in his fate for far longer than the film deserves.
Where DEMOLITION really goes wrong is that it embraces a kind of black/comic quirkiness that it's not able to pull off. This is especially true once Gyllenhaal's letters put him on the radar of a lonely customer service rep (Naomi Watts), who starts following him around, eventually leading to a kind-of friendship between the two that never feels entirely convincing, maybe due to a lack of chemistry. Vallée tries too hard to make her character intriguing but the usually excellent Watts struggles to make an impression as the pot-smoking, oddball single mom. It doesn't help that once the relationship is established, Watts is banished from much of the film, with the focus shifting to Gyllenhaal's relationship with her rebellious teen son, played by Judah Lewis.
It's here that the movie becomes really problematic as Vallée starts provoking the audience with strange scenes including one where Gyllenhaal takes the boy to the woods and, while wearing a bullet-proof vest, asks the boy to shoot him repeatedly. The boy's confused sexual identity also comes into play, but once again – whenever this aspect of the story starts to get interesting the focus is shifted to less compelling side plots, such as Gyllenhaal''s growing obsession with demolishing things, particularly his palatial home.
DEMOLITION gets even more disjointed in the hackneyed last act, where Vallée uses some manipulative melodramatic twists in what seems like an attempt to give this an emotionally cathartic end. The rest of the film is so confused and meandering that by this point, the majority of the audience will have already checked out and simply won't care about the conventional, tragi-comic wrap up.
Although I'd wager DEMOLITION a real failure for all involved (making the decision by Searchlight to push this out of the Oscar race to 2016 understandable) there are some redeeming qualities. Gyllenhaal is clearly giving it his all, and the performance is good enough that even though it's a bad film it still can't help but be worth watching for him alone. Chris Cooper and Polly Draper as the late-wife's grief-stricken parents are also exceptional, and it's only through the two of them that the movie ever starts to make an emotional connection to the audience.
Despite all this, I'd still wager Jean-Marc Vallée as a major filmmaking talent, although next to his disciplined DALLAS BUYERS CLUB and WILD, DEMOLITION seems especially disappointing. It's what I'd call an interesting failure, and hopefully just a blip on the radar for an otherwise outstanding director.