DEMOLITION manipulates, shocks and examines in a tapestry of unpredictability
It is unusual, funny, emotionally freeing and always riveting.
Leave it to Jean-Marc Vallee to deliver yet another emotionally intense and introspective character driven film. Leave it to Jake Gyllenhaal to once again put his chameleonic skill set to use to deliver yet another indelible and unforgettable performance. A film that goes against the emotional grain, toying with our own unspoken fears about "what if" and "waiting for the other shoe to drop", DEMOLITION manipulates, shocks and examines in a tapestry of unpredictability that is unusual, funny, emotionally freeing and always riveting.
Davis Mitchell is your run of the mill Wall Street investment banker. Only worried about the next big deal, he is oblivious to the world and the people around him, including his wife Julia. He makes big deals, he's at the top of his game, he makes big money and lives the good life. And he works for his father-in-law, Phil. What more is there. But in the blink of an eye everything changes for Davis Mitchell when while in the car mid-conversation arguing with his wife about a leak in the refrigerator, the vehicle is t-boned. Screen goes black. Cut to the hospital. Julia is dead.
While a grief-stricken Phil rushes to the hospital not yet knowing his daughter is dead, Davis shows no sign of grief or sadness. His eyes are vacant black holes. His shoulders are slumped and his gait a bit slow, but it looks more from exhaustion or aches from the accident than grief. There are no tears, no questions to the doctors, no concern for anything - except a vending machine that has eaten his money without dispensing the M&M's Davis was trying to buy.
As difficult as it is for them, Phil and his wife Margot handle the funeral arrangements. It's anybody's guess if Davis will even show up as he acts as if nothing has changed. Phone calls to him from Phil go unanswered. He goes in to work and keeps going full charge. It's obvious everyone around him is walking on eggshells, just waiting for the loss to take hold. But it doesn't, or does it - just not in the traditional form.
At Phil's house for the after-funeral reception, Davis sits down and writes a letter; a letter to the vending machine company about his lost money and his dissatisfaction with their machine. But it's not just a complaint letter as Davis starts pouring out his life story in the letter, about Julia, the accident, her death. That letter lands in the hands of the lone customer service agent at the Champion Vending Machines company, Karen Moreno. From a filmmaking standpoint, the letter (and those subsequent) is a superb tool for providing much needed exposition into the character of Davis.
Karen is touched by the letter and empathizes with the pain inside Davis which prompted the missive. Clearly, there is something in Davis' words that not only touch Karen, but to which she relates, so much so that she calls Davis in the middle of the night offering to lend an ear. He has an honesty that she finds refreshing, particularly given her own backstory which we come to learn as the film progresses.
Obviously taken by the kindness of this stranger, Davis continues to write letters to Champion Vending Machines, knowing they will end up in the hands of Karen Moreno. But then he goes a step further and seeks her out, wanting to meet her in person. There's something unique and beautiful about the meeting between Davis and Karen, and a friendship blossoms not only between the two, but with Karen's heavy metal/classic rock loving, rebellious son Chris.
People see changes happening in Davis, and in Phil's mind, not for the better. Not knowing about this friendship with Karen, he urges Davis to take his life apart, piece by piece, examining it so he can emotionally rebuild. But Davis takes Phil's words a bit too literally and with toolbox in hand, starts "disassembling" the appliances in his house, then he goes out and pays a construction team to let him demolish drywall and work with hammers and electric tools, he even "fixes" noisy door hinges at Phil's house and then dismantles their bathroom because of a flickering light. (Needless to say, Davis' construction skills only lie with destruction. There is no such thing as repair or fix.) But there's something almost cathartic happening, as with each swing of a sledgehammer, Davis' level of brutal honesty about life escalates, prompting admissions to strangers about never loving Julia.
And while Davis is demolishing and destroying everything he can get his hands on, including his own home, he bonds with Karen's son Chris, a boy who lost his dad in the war and who has also not come to grips with that grief. Like Davis, Chris is adrift, not knowing who he is or where he's going.
Jake Gyllenhaal owns this role. He infuses a raw truth in Davis that is intense, compelling. You can't look away from him. You are curious as to what's going on inside his head. You want to know what this emotional instability will prompt Davis to do next, be it renting a bulldozer or dancing in the streets of Manhattan. There is sorrow, there is joy, there is elation, there is sadness. Gyllenhaal taps into the emotional spectrum on all counts.
There is a sweetness inherent to the story with Naomi Watts' Karen, that is engaging and light, serving as a perfect balance to the curiosity fueled - yet sometimes emotionless - intensity that Gyllenhaal brings to Davis. Watts gives Karen a note of "fragility" and sensitivity that is engaging and soft, while adding moments of exuberant youthful glee as the relationship between Davis and Karen develops.
Say hello to Judah Lewis! Having played the Young Utah in "Point Break" (2015), we got a glimpse of Lewis. But here, he is given a chance to shine and shine he does. Lewis brings a raw rebelliousness to Chris so strong that we feel his confusion and need to escape. A very powerful scene involves Chris' reenactment of a school project hated by the teacher, but the project speaks directly to how his father was killed in the war. Lewis mesmerizes, oblivious to the camera, to Gyllenhaal's presence. His focus and emotions are so fine-tuned that he just commands the screen. Judah Lewis is a young man to put on your radars folks.
Then there's the chemistry that develops on screen between Gyllenhaal and Lewis. The dynamic of their characters is thoughtfully constructed.
Ambivalence is the word to describe Chris Cooper as Phil. Still uncertain as to him being right for the role, Cooper brings some ambiguity to Phil that at times is unsettling and doesn't feel "right" for the character.
Directed by Jean-Marc Vallee and written by Bryan Sipe, the storytelling structure is very similar in construct both on the page and visually as what Vallee brought us in "Wild", while the layers and depth of each individual character and the dynamic of each relationship is more akin to that achieved in "Dallas Buyers Club." Every character is flawed and DEMOLITION doesn't shy away from that; it celebrates it. It's refreshing to see this much emotional texture again from Vallee and this go-round with a young teen in the mix. Sipe taps into grief and its many forms - sadness, no words for the loss of a child, writing to a stranger, violence - reminding us that no one is immune from grief and loss, bringing a truth to the script and the characters. Standout is that the most inappropriate moments land the best laughs, thanks in large part to the almost sociopathic obliviousness Gyllenhaal brings to Davis for the first act of the film.
A true character study that starts with the protagonist at rock bottom and then builds him up stronger and better than ever, here, we see life lessons learned and proactive measures (albeit with sledgehammers and bulldozers) being taken to discover the building blocks of life, marriage and what makes things tick. Sipe never goes for maudlin or apathy. There is a bite to the character of Davis, and although through his actions he is metaphorically demolishing his life and memories of marriage, it is done with purposeful intent - something much different than someone who's just an emotional trainwreck. And it's through the depth of emotion of each character and their interaction with Davis that we see the development and birth of a well-rounded man.
Visually, Jean-Marc Vallee and cinematographer Yves Belanger are an unbeatable team. Once again shooting with only available light, and going hand held with the Alexa, Belanger and Vallee shoot 360 degrees, immersing us in the totality of the circumstance. In a bold move for Vallee, he approaches DEMOLITION with an action pacing that is directly opposite to the introspective nature of the story. Using Belanger's beautifully framed images, Vallee uses jump-cuts and rapid-fire sight gags to keep the story moving while solidifying the unpredictability of Davis. Also adding to this "action" style of Vallee's is editor Jay M. Glen. Vallee did his own editing on "Wild" and "Dallas Buyers Club", but Glen's fresh perspective serves DEMOLITION well with a more frenetic attack where appropriate and then softened with momentary respites allowing quieter scenes between Gyllenhaal and Watts to breathe.
Terrific meld of cinematography and John Paino's often metaphoric production design is seen with Davis living in a house of glass and steel with a work environment of similar design, yet it is the antithesis of who Davis is. . .until his personal demolition begins. Similarly, there is a beautiful differential between the office world Phil has created and the dark wood, umber golden notes of his home where you get a sense thanks to Belanger's lensing that there's something hiding around every corner. And of course, Karen's house is in-between - lived in, functional, and in the moment. Beach scenes are freeing and light, matching the emotional growth and character progression. Sublime visual grammar.
A side note on the production design for you: Davis' glass and steel house was real with real plumbing, electrical, lighting, appliances, televisions, furniture, woodwork, cabinetry, etc. So when you see the destruction of the house, that is not fabricated set dressing being destroyed. It's real wiring you see exposed, real pipes being ripped out of walls. And according to Judah Lewis, during the demolition of the house scenes which involved himself and Gyllenhaal, Vallee was shooting much of the scene himself with the handheld and was up close and personal with each throw of the hammer.
As with all Jean-Marc Vallee films, music is key and DEMOLITION is no different. Setting the tone from the start with Heart's "Crazy On You", Vallee then adds tracks like "Mr. Big" by Free and the Bob Dylan penned/Chocolate Watchband performed, "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue", along with the 1967 hit "When I Was Young" by Eric Burdon & The Animals, and more. The music alone is worth the price of admission.
Directed by Jean-Marc Vallee
Written by Bryan Sipe
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Naomi Watts, Chris Cooper, Judah Lewis, Polly Draper