Demolition

Review by David Davidson @TOFilmReview

Directed by

Jean-Marc Vallée

Starring

Heather Lind Jake Gyllenhaal Naomi Watts

Anticipation.

Jean-Marc Vallée is an underrated director of alternative crowdpleasers.

Enjoyment.

A moving account of how the process of grief can take on strange forms.

In Retrospect.

Helped no end by a charming, laid-back central performance from Gyllenhaal.

A grief-stricken Jake Gyllenhaal is the shining light in this middling drama from director Jean-Marc Vallée.

Investment banker Davis Mitchell (Jake Gyllenhaal) is driving along with his wife, Julia (Heather Lind). They’re in the midst a mundane conversation about home appliances. All of a sudden a car crashes into them, killing Julia. The credits follow, and the word ‘Demolition’ appears on screen. It’s a shocking gesture: we’re introduced to a character, then they’re instantly killed.

The scene finds its precedent in some of the director Jean-Marc Vallée’s other openings: a dropped child in 2005’s C.R.A.Z.Y.; AIDS activist Ron Woodroof fainting in 2013’s Dallas Buyers Club; and Cheryl Strayed ripping off her toenail in 2014’s Wild. Vallée’s cinema usually begins with trauma. But what’s different in Demolition is that the violence doesn’t directly affect the hero.

Based on a script by Bryan Sipe, Vallée chooses to film the crash from inside the car, devastating Davis and the audience, and then smoothly transitioning to the title. It should be abject: transforming the loss of a human life into an audience shock. But this cynical jibe would come to parallel Davis’ own character arc throughout the film as he slowly learns to feel again.

After the death of his wife, everyone surrounding him, especially his father-in-law Phil (Chris Cooper), is stricken by grief, while Davis continues going to work as if nothing has even happened. Davis tries to justify his behaviour in a long-winded letter to a vending machine customer service representative, Karen (Naomi Watts), who becomes sympathetic to his plight. All the while Davis starts acting bizarrely at work, alienating himself from his peers and extended family by choosing to demolish his home and everything that reminds him of Julia.

Davis’ process of self-realisation inevitably takes him to some dark places. He slowly starts to evolve, and through opening himself up to the emotional pain of others, he is able to rebuild his fractured life.  Vallée, with his regular cinematographer Yves Bélanger, captures the movement of the actors and landscapes with a musical rhythm, which dovetails nicely with a jam session between Karen’s son Chris and Davis that spreads wide across the city. Compared to his other work, Demolition is edited with a lot more snap and style. The subject matter could be seen as deeply maudlin, and so this sprightly, vivacious formal treatment reflects Davis’ own unconventional reaction to his situation.

During this period of intense focus on dismantling and restoring physical objects, Davis happens across a decommissioned carousel while wandering along the New York waterfront. His rehabilitation is capped off with a climactic scene of unbridled happiness as this dusty carnival relic is brought back from the doldrums. After so much misery, the film assures us that a beacon of light can always be found when the world appears to be turning to rubble.

With TV serial Big Little Lies coming up and after that a potential Janis Joplin biopic in the offing, Vallée proves he is committed to a heartfelt and personal popular cinema that speaks to the contemporary times. If he chooses to remain a more anonymous and modest public figure, then so be it.

Published 28 Apr 2016

Tags: Jake Gyllenhaal

Anticipation.

Jean-Marc Vallée is an underrated director of alternative crowdpleasers.

Enjoyment.

A moving account of how the process of grief can take on strange forms.

In Retrospect.

Helped no end by a charming, laid-back central performance from Gyllenhaal.

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