To figure out who you really are, tear everything apart until you find the parts that are truly you, and throw everything else away. This is the fundamental story behind Demolition, starring Jake Gyllenhaal. While the writer and director’s unique attempt at retelling the find-yourself story is commendable, and Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance as Davis is charming and top-notch, the film still struggles with this on-the-nose metaphor and lack of finding anything new to say. The gradual progression of Gyllenhaal’s clean cut character into a train wreck was well done, and writer Bryan Sipe basks in Davis’s self-destructive downward spiral, but ultimately struggles to find a suitable and authentic answer for him by the end.
Written by Sipe and directed by Jean Marc-Vallée, Demolition is about Davis (Jake Gyllenhall), a clean-cut man working in finance. The moment Davis marries his wife Julia, everything is set up for him. He gets a job at his father-in-law’s company, making a lot of money, and living a seemingly perfect life. He doesn’t pay attention to the details and most times he’s not really listening to anyone at all, a flaw that irritates his wife. However, after her death, the lynchpin is pulled, and he deconstructs everything around him, literally and figuratively. At the hospital, right after he’s told his wife is dead, he tries to purchase candy from a vending machine when it gets stuck. He writes letters to the vending company to get a refund while also telling the company his life story. Karen (Naomi Watts), the customer service representative at the company, reads the letters and gives Davis a call, and they form a close connection.
Gyllenhaal’s character is the film’s centerpiece and he pulls it off well. He has a certain absent-minded charm in the beginning, which gradually progresses into a destructive wild man. I’m impressed by Gyllenhaal’s acting range and ability to play a predictable clean-cut guy who’s pretending to be something he isn’t, to an unpredictable disaster and out into something else. The movie truly lives and dies on Gyllenhaal’s performance and I think he hits the ball out of the park. It’s easy to like Davis, to connect with what he’s going through, and feel empathy for him, hoping that he’ll come out on the other side a better man. Some of his wild, comedic antics are a breath of fresh air, giving his sad story some levity. However, it also made sense to his character, a man untethered from who he truly is, desperately grasping and destroying everything in his wake to find himself again.
Like most finding-yourself stories, the plot is loosely based on the question, “Who will the main character be in the end?” There are a few sub-plots that help complement and support Davis’s own journey, but where he ends up and what he discovers, after all the dismantling, is the true plot. Expect a few mysteries and plot twists to show up, some more predictable than others, but after the dust settles, it still feels like lazy, cliché writing.
The direction and cinematography were well executed, even if it was a little avant-garde and weird, but it worked well with the story and the character. Marc-Vallée excels at pulling you into Davis’s pain and self-destructive tendencies, but he’s unable to find a satisfying ending that shows you who Davis is as a person at the end. Instead, he throws a few happy moments as red herrings to distract from answering that question. Make no mistake, Demolition sets up interesting questions about identity and social behavior, especially regarding the main character, but it doesn’t answer them in any way that would make sense to the character and the story.
It’s hard to reinvigorate a story like this, and while the premise of a character literally destroying everything sounds appealing at first, it quickly grows stale. Gyllenhaal’s character and acting, however, help keep the story entertaining and interesting, even if the end is unsatisfying.
Photos courtesy of: Fox Searchlight Pictures