Film-going audiences love a good story about a person whose life has gone askew, who has taken a beating, and who begins the painful yet cathartic process of clawing one’s way back to the top. The tried-and-true trope has appeared in wildly diverse cinematic incarnations over years. There are obligatory sports stories (Rocky, The Natural), but this standard plot is also clearly imbued in Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life and the bum-beats-bond trader comedy Trading Places. Enter Jake Gyllenhaal’s latest, Demolition.
Like Life‘s George Bailey, Davis Mitchell (Gyllenhaal) has had his challenges. He’s been up and down so many times it’s hard to keep track of where he’s been and where he’s going. Demolition begins with Davis and his wife Julia (Heather Lind) in the middle of a heated conversation as they drive down the avenue. What can we tell? They’re an attractive pair, she’s fiery, and they’ve got a plush luxury ride. And then just like that, boom, out of nowhere another car rips through the passenger side and she’s gone.
In the fractured aftermath we learn that Davis came from the wrong side of the tracks, but married well in Julia; her father (a somber Chris Cooper) runs a successful investment firm and gives his son-in-law a nepotistic roost that he helms well. For all the money and success however, Davis is unanchored, unhappy, and numb. Inside he’s quickly reaching the boiling point. Clearly, he’s a man in need of a therapist.
But then three things happen. First, Davis refuses to sign the legal documents necessary to start a scholarship in his wife’s name. Then, he goes on a letter-writing crusade against a vending machine company because the $1.25 he inserted into the machine for a bag of M&Ms didn’t return the promised treats. And finally one day, he takes some time off and joins a demolition crew — in fact, he pays them to let him join.
Clearly, what we’re supposed to believe is that Davis is working out his issues through the toil of manual labor and, as a result, begins to realize that his lush life and marriage to Julia was a sham. This triggers a series of angry affronts to his father-in-law, who Davis seems to blame for the tortured malaise he’s mired in. The anger at times is so sharp and mean-spirited, Davis comes dangerously close to losing our sympathies. Cooper’s father-in-law may be a stiff cup of joe, but one-percenter or not, these are grieving parents who deserve, in the very least, a modicum of compassion.
Meanwhile, the confessional letters to the vending machine company spark mutual intrigue between Davis and the woman who reads them, Karen (Naomi Watts). She calls him one night at two in the morning, but remains aloof to his pleas to meet for coffee. They eventually meet, but things are a bit complicated — she’s involved with the owner of the vending company and has a child. It’s also here that Demolition, directed by Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club and Wild) and written by Bryan Sipe, begins to take some chances, and not all of them are good.
Watt’s Karen, fades from the fore nearly as soon as her faces graces the screen, and it’s her barely teenage son Chris (Judah Lewis), serving a school suspension and struggling with his sexuality, who gets the intimate moments with Davis. Their activities involve sledge hammers and a bulldozer which they use to take out their frustrations on unsuspecting furniture and facades — and for good measure, they horse around some with firearms. Davis and Chris tear it all down, but there’s no epiphany or new foundation to be found amongst the rubble.
The film gets a big boost from Gyllenhaal who, given Vallée’s ability to garner best acting nods upon his stars (Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon), likely jumped at the project. He’s right up there with McConaughey, Tom Hardy, and Michael Fassbender, as one of the more interesting and edgy male leads in film today. His last outing Southpaw, where he also lost a wife and took it on the chin, failed to leverage the quirk and cadence Gyllenhaal so effectively demonstrated in his prior effort, Nightcrawler, but in that film, Gyllenhaal was playing a sociopath. In Demolition he’s playing someone arguably more rooted and nuanced. The actor and the film hit brash cords as Davis bashes things in and ducks and groves his way through crowded streets teeming with suit-wearing zombies.
The underlying trappings of Demolition, if in less capable hands, may have come out as boilerplate drivel, a Nicholas Sparks’s adaptation replete with a happy ending tacked on, but Vallée, ever a plumber of the human condition, digs in and veers to the left every time a cliche appears on the horizon. It’s an energetic movie, full of emotional titillation, with an apathetic ending that deviates from this most time-honored of tropes.