If you don’t take it apart, how can you fix it?
Main Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Naomi Watts
Director: Jean-Marc Vallee
I like actors who take chances. Weird little movies or controversial big ones – it doesn’t matter. Jake Gyllenhaal could have easily slid through a very lucrative career as a young actor in rom/coms because he’s just so damn good looking, but he didn’t. From the beginning (Donnie Darko, anyone?) he’s chosen work that is off the beaten path. Some were wildly successful (Brokeback Mountain, anyone?) and others just plain stunk (Enemy, anyone? Actually, I hope no one else had to watch that) but there’s always something a little edgy, even if he’s making a rom/com. I recently saw the 2015 comedy/drama Demolition and am glad to report that it’s just as weird as I had hoped and one of his more successful ventures.
Demolition begins with an ending – the death of Davis Mitchell’s wife in a car accident. Mitchell, played by Gyllenhaal, is thrown into a spiral of self-loathing, sure that he didn’t love his wife because he wasn’t grieving “properly”. He is close to his late wife’s parents (played by Chris Cooper and Polly Draper) and works for her father, but really has no one to talk to about his wife, their marriage, or her death.
So it is that Davis ends up taking a random statement made by his father-in-law, his feelings of guilt, and the inexplicable urge to complain about the malfunctioning vending machine at the hospital and turning them into his own bizarre, yet soothing and cathartic, coping mechanism.
Yes, I recognize that the plot summary sounds almost indecipherably odd (which is of course what drew me to the movie in the first place), but it works. Gyllenhaal writes letters to the vending machine company to complain, and fills them with the thoughts and feelings that he is simply unable to voice elsewhere. Karen (Naomi Watts), who receives customer complaints at the company, is so moved by the letters that she seeks him out and becomes part of his healing process. A process that also includes taking things apart, general demolition of property (nearly always his own), and the stalling of a memorial scholarship being put together by his in-laws.
What makes the movie work is that we are in Davis’s head. We hear the letters he writes, in which he is brutally honest. Gyllenhaal’s voice-over narration of those letters as he goes about his increasingly aberrant behavior allows us to fill in the blanks about why he is so untethered and unable to grieve in the manner expected by family and friends. His stunts at construction sites, at work, and his supportive relationship with Karen’s teenage son all provide some comic relief that takes the edge off his obvious suffering.
Overall, Demolition is a love story about a complicated marriage and how the spouse left behind to reconcile all those complications finds support and solace in unlikely places. Gyllenhaal gives an excellent performance, but so do Watts and, especially, Cooper. As much as we are trying to understand Davis, we also understand exactly why his father-in-law grows ever angrier at the seemingly inappropriate behavior of someone he sees as family after the death of his daughter. It isn’t a grand film, on a grand scale, but instead an intimate look at grief and one of the many forms it might take in a young man with few outlets and little support. For the indie lover, it’s a treat – one that I definitely recommend.