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Review: Demolition

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Grief strikes us all in different ways, and portraits of grief are often the subject of films or novels – perhaps as much cathartic outlet for the writer as intriguing to the audience. In Jean-Marc Vallée‘s examination of grief, Demolition, his protagonist deals with his loss through destruction, or maybe more accurately, deconstruction. It’s an obsession that starts out small but spreads until he has been successful in the ‘demolition’ of his entire life.

Davis (Jake Gyllenhaal) is the every man. He has a nice house, nice car, a job in the financial sector secured for him by his father in law, Phil (Chris Cooper) and he’s married to his college sweetheart Julia (Heather Lind).  Davis has routine, getting up each morning at 5:30 and taking the same jog, the same route to work on the same train, with the same people. When a car accident results in his wife’s death while leaving him without a scratch, Davis immediately tries to return back to the comfort of his routine. However in the wake of her death he is left with questions, both about their relationship and life in general.

His emotional release begins in writing to the customer service department of a vending machine company. What starts out as a polite complaint with regards to a package of M&Ms ends up being the one place that he can seemingly be honest with his thoughts.  At the same time, Davis starts taking apart things in his life that don’t seem to work – his refrigerator, a squeaky door, a computer – all while examining his own life, seeing how each part works.

He continues putting the increasingly confessional letters in the mail without thought of reply, until he gets a phone call from Karen (Naomi Watts), the person on receiving end. What results is an awkward sort of friendship where each can finally be honest. Davis finds comfort in Karen and her son Chris (Judah Lewis), and they eventually find comfort in him as they work out their personal issues and navigate the road ahead.

Coming off highly acclaimed films Dallas Buyers Club and Wild, Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée decided to reunite himself with cinematographer Yves Bélanger, who also worked on both projects.  It’s clear the two have a creative chemistry able to achieve a certain tonal balance, even if its not always consistent.  Bélanger, who loves to work with only natural light (as he also did in Brooklyn), makes the film, both in the present and in flash backs, look great in every frame  – a bright look for a movie about grief.  Vallée has been able to do this in his films though, often bringing some lightness to subject matter that otherwise would be emotionally overwhelming.  His use of music in his work, also highlights this ability.

However, if you want a somewhat unconventional look at grief, who better to bring that to you than Jake Gyllenhaal, an actor so able to convey just a little bit of madness in his eyes (see Nightcrawler).  Davis’ inner turmoil is less obvious, but there are moments where the subtleties of Gyllenhaal’s abilities change your feeling for Davis in an instant.  What comes to mind is a beautiful sequence where Davis finally begins to cry and your heart goes out to him, feeling almost relieved that he is able to grieve.  And then he stops.  And you realize he is only practicing for the funeral goers outside, trying to make himself feel something that isn’t there.  It’s hard not to feel concerned for Davis in that moment and Gyllenhaal takes that very moment to show you why he’s one of the better actors in his generation.

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Chris Cooper seems to be the character that is dealing with his grief in a more expected way.  Part heart broken father, part typically grumpy curmudgeon played so effectively by Cooper, Phil is somewhat of a barometer of what we feel “normal” grieving should be.  He pulls it off brilliantly, though the standout besides Gyllenhaal truly is Judah Lewis, whose performance seems so natural and unforced that he is likely to be a young actor whose name becomes quickly main stream.

It is all this acting prowess that truly elevates Demolition.  Without the cast behind it, the film, would have felt all a little hollow.  How far can you truly push an entire movie based on a metaphor?  And, if you’re going to do so, do you really need to explain it all in a voice over?  There are certainly flaws in Bryan Sipe’s screenplay including a lack of resolution of one key relationship, and it’s hard to say whether it is the development of Davis that seems to frustrate or Vallee’s guidance of him which are the key concern. Without Gyllenhaal, Davis would have been difficult to like or identify with in any way and the film surely would not have been as likeable.  It’s a lot of pressure to put on casting if the source material is a little emotionally confused.

Demolition, while certainly not perfect, is far from a wreck. There is a lot to like here, maybe just not a lot to love. Vallée is a lucky man to be able to pull a cast together that brings this film more recognition and praise than it would have received without. While the final act of Demolition is short and to the point, the end is a rewarding and emotional conclusion to Davis’ journey, just perhaps not completely satisfying.  No matter how you feel about the portrayal of grief, Demolition does serve as a reminder that sometimes in order to build something great, you need to tear down what once stood.

3-out-of-5

Demolition was the opening night gala at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival.  It is currently playing in North American theatres and will be released in the UK Friday, April 29th

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