A case study in indulgent and privileged grieving.
Jean-Marc Vallée enjoys playing heartstrings. He’s drawn to more irreverent forms of playing them but his end goals are clear, and what worked so well in Dallas Buyers Club and Wild—using broken and imperfect people to explore physical and emotional journeys—breaks down Demolition. The flawed protagonist in this case-study in grief is Davis Mitchell, whose emotional intelligence is so low it borders on sociopathic, proven by the (literally) destructive way he chooses to deal with the sudden death of his wife. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Mitchell as well as can be expected for such an irrational character, and Vallée’s introspective style pushes things as far as it can in building real feelings toward the story. It’s Bryan Sipe’s screenplay (his first major feature) that appears to be at fault, shoving as many emotionally explosive elements as possible into one script and only hinting at the sort of saving grace that would allow audiences to forgive the sentimental melodrama capping off the film.
Davis Mitchell is reminiscent of American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman in more ways than just his emotional numbness. Clean-shaven, well-groomed, and career-driven, the house he and his young wife Julia (Heather Lind) share is all glass and metal—antiseptic like he is. During an argument while driving one day he and his wife are hit by a truck and Julia dies at the hospital while Davis escapes without a scratch. Shortly after receiving the news of her death, Davis attempts to buy some M&Ms from a vending machine and, when the package sticks in the machine, he takes down the vending machine company’s info.
With keen editing, Davis’ experience of the details of his wife’s death focuses more on everyone else’s emotions surrounding him, while he remains undisturbed. He escapes during the funeral reception to write a letter to the vending company, describing in awkward detail the circumstances surrounding his attempt to buy M&Ms. It feels distinctly unnatural, as nothing of Davis’ nature suggests he’d care much either way at having gotten the candy or not, but we’re meant to understand this is his way of emoting.
After returning to work as an investment banker soon after Julia’s death, Davis’ father-in-law Phil (Chris Cooper), who is also his boss, encourages him to take some time off and deconstruct his feelings. Davis decides to take him at his word, and though he doesn’t immediately take time off work, he does start taking apart almost anything that annoys him or causes him to wonder. This includes a bathroom stall, his refrigerator, an espresso machine, and his work computer. This behavior, of course, leads to some forced time off, and by this point the customer service representative of the vending machine company, Karen Moreno (Naomi Watts), reaches out to Davis after becoming intrigued by his letters.
What follows is a hard to swallow friendship between the privileged Davis and Karen, a low-income single mother dating her boss and a marijuana—or cannabis, as she prefers to call it—user. While much of what happens on-screen is difficult to believe, such as Davis joining a construction crew to help destroy a house just for a reason to use a sledgehammer, his relationship with Karen and her son Chris (Judah Lewis) feels the most contrived. As if unable to pick a theme, the film slips into piling one high drama scenario onto the next, but through the filter of Davis’s inability to feel anything. If emotional appropriation is a thing, this movie embodies it.
How much more can a rich white man take from the world just to try and elicit some sense of grief for his perfectly awesome dead wife? As Davis bitches to the void through his letters to Karen (which continue, by the way, even after he knows she’s reading them, like some real-life Facebook status update), destroys millions of dollars of material possessions many people would be thrilled to own, and then forces his sorry self into the lives of poorer and more generous people than himself all while ignoring his own family’s attempts to show him love, it gets harder and harder to feel any empathy for Davis. It’s a case study in indulgent and privileged grieving.
Vallée is ever ambitious in exploring the nuances of the human condition and, as usual, he creates a film that looks and sounds beautiful. He’s an expert at incorporating music, even if Heart’s “Crazy On You” doesn’t fit here as smoothly as he might think. I find obvious fault with Gyllenhaal’s character but it’s not to do with his performance. If given the chance to express a more complicated range of emotion, it would have been easier to be endeared to Demolition. Watts is likable but her character is a washrag for Davis to wipe his face on. But the standout of the film is Judah Lewis, who is the only one capable of breaking hearts as a teenager trying to both find and be himself. Lewis’ character is the only one portraying emotions that make some sort of sense: teen angst, passion, and uncertainty. If only the film was about him.