Life has a tendency to zip forward on a single, amusement ride track until something or someone comes barreling out of the shadows of entropy to buck your stated momentum and set you serendipitously down a new path. 17th century physicist Isaac Newton described the phenomenon in which colliding forces impress upon one another an equal and opposite reaction in his famous Third Law, which describes both why someone struck by a moving vehicle would find their chest caved in and someone catching a bad edge going a cool 30 mph on decade old skis would find their wrist contorted in all kinds of wrong directions.
The later is myself, pecking at my keyboard with only the use of my left hand after a mighty ski tumble, the former is Demolition’s not-long-for-this-world Julia (Heather Hind). Julia is the kind, if somewhat banal, wife to Jake Gyllenhaal’s preoccupied investment banker Davis Mitchell. He describes her fondly as a “good person” who “worked with special needs children” though his affection for her is remarkably mechanical and ably detached. They are the 21st century bannermen of hiked national divorce rates, a ticking time bomb of romantic apathy, unhappily snug in their habitual onesie of a marriage.
On their routine commute through mid-morning Manhattan, she pries at him about the usual household chores as he disappears into his smartphone, sinking deep into the trivialities of the successful investment firm run by his eagle-eyed father-in-law (Chris Cooper). The conversation drifts to the leaky refrigerator, a domestic breakdown Davis hasn’t noticed that rightfully parallels their own defunct marriage. We’re witness to their mundane loveless affair for all of three minutes before an unseen vehicle comes barreling through the intersection. “Woah, woah, woah,” is all Davis can hurriedly muster before their car is rocked by 50 Gs of heavy metal horsepower, his face cradled by the powder of an emergency airbag, hers tossed into sheer demolition.
Jean-Marc Vallée, this time with aid from new arrival crack editor Jay M. Glen, trademarked a brand of tiptoe hyper-cuts in his breakout feature Dallas Buyers Club that resurfaces in Demolition. At first, Vallée doesn’t let his audience settle on a shot; he moves quickly between them, forcing viewers to remain hyper-vigilant, prying for meaning at images skating by at super-speed. It makes for a tactile experience, one not too dissimilar from the masterful direction of David Fincher. In one capacity, this stylistic approach is meant to mimic Davis’ fleeting ability to engage with the moment. As the film draws on and Davis opens himself up to the possibility of reinvention through self-destruction, Vallée’s shots stretch longer and become more involving, daring to open doors that previously lay locked and bolted. The character and camerawork both shed a fear of intimacy in this regard, mirror images of one another as Vallée’s venture charges onward into unknown narrative waters.
In the pole position, Jake Gyllenhaal fires on all cylinders. He conducts a ballet of emotions, waffling between being emotionally withdrawn and fully exposed, tactfully inward-facing and brutally honest. Over the course of the last decade, the LA native has offered a supple package of notable performances, from his Oscar-nominated turn in Brokeback Mountain to his career-best role in the devilish Nightcrawler, but his work in Demolition might be his most revealing yet. As Davis grapples with the complexities of human relationships, chartering causal pathways that normative society is quick to shrug off, he discovers new depths within himself. This reconfiguration includes his crescendoing involvement with customer service rep Karen Moreno (Naomi Watts). Their emergent relationship becomes the narrative fabric upon which the emotional revelations are written on and both performers offer delicate portraits of wounded but hopeful souls.
As Davis takes up a predilection for deconstructing the things around him, leaving in his wake a spray of dissembled cogs and dials, so too does Vallée deconstruct the romantic drama. Gone are the trite niceties of courtship, replaced by a questionable montage of Jake G smashing things and falling in love quite arguably too soon after the passing of his wife. There’s a lot to unpack in Vallée’s tirade of melancomedy, some of which is certain to challenge the viewer’s traditional sense of grief. But in the whirlwind of loss, Demolition asserts that hope is a meticulous course of undoing; that in order to process the invoice of the past, you must break it down to itemized deductions. What works to make us tick. What doesn’t. You must destroy to rebuild. Or as German philosopher Friedrich Nietzche would claim, “You must have chaos within you to give birth to a dancing star.” As evidenced by the photo below, Gyllenhaal is very much that dancing star.
Davis comes to embody that Nietzschean chaotic state and his interaction with the world around him is at once tragic and hysterical. He becomes an ubermensch of not giving a flying fuck. Demolition, led by Vallée’s crafty, pointed hand, therefore represents a kind of post-financial crisis Office Space meets a modern day American Beauty. It’s an Obama-era success story that breaks down the platform of success, giving into the powers of entropy and carnal instinct. Thematically, there are poignant similarities between all three features but Demolition never feels derivative so much as the natural conclusion of those turn-of-the-century works. Insomuch as Jean-Marc Vallée aspires to create in the face of destruction, his film remains true to its own brand of spiritual irreverence, boldly going somewhere unpredictable and wholly exciting,
CONCLUSION: Led by soaring performances from Gyllenhaal and Watts and an emotionally exploratory script from Bryan Sipe, ‘Demolition’ is an oddball destructo-drama that measures the invoice of grief against the constructs of self-reinvention. Jean-Marc Vallée’s whip-smart, heart-rending and thoroughly hysterical feature threatens to alienate some audiences with its cut-and-dry views on life and love but works wonders under the right conditions.
*Review reprinted from our 2016 SXSW coverage