This article contains spoilers for Demolition. You have been warned.
James: Jake Gyllenhaal’s latest film, Demolition has just opened. Just to get things started, I am curious what your initial opinion of the film was?
Henry: Well, despite the mixed reception, I actually quite liked it. I felt like it started off a little shaky, but by the end I was really enjoying it. How about you?
James: I was a little underwhelmed by the movie as a whole. The set-up felt a little over-familiar and the film overall felt so metaphor-heavy that it felt like the movie was going to implode at any second. As an acting vehicle for Gyllenhaal, though, I think it’s a lot more successful.
Henry: I can see that. I would say of Jean-Marc Vallée’s last films including Dallas Buyers Club and Wild, this would definitely be the least effective. I feel like to enjoy this film you really have to connect with Gyllenhaal’s character a lot. If not, it can feel kind of pointless and maybe empty in the long run. I am a big fan of his, especially over the past couple of years, and I think Gyllenhaal handled the part quite well even if the material didn’t always back him up.
James: After Enemy, Prisoners and especially Nightcrawler, Gyllenhaal has been rolling on a major high. If anything, it’s somewhat delightful to watch an actor in full command of his instrument really let it hang out and go big. He’s pretty exceptional here overall – in many ways his performance in Demolition feels like an old-school star vehicle – he runs with it and yet I couldn’t really help but thinking that he’s leaps and bounds ahead of this material. The movie, with it’s sometimes too-clever-for-its-own-good dialogue and concept, just never seemed to be able to keep up with his energy.
Henry: I agree. I feel like this movie can at times feel quite shallow and menial, especially compared to what Gyllenhaal is giving on screen, which is a similar case to Southpaw last year -he gave it his all, but that film often fell into generic territory. But this film is such an odd, peculiar piece that it was fun to see him demolish, go crazy, and become this wild person. And one of the most interesting aspects of that was how Vallée never seemed to try and make the audience judge him; we simply saw him going through life, attempting to feel something again. That’s the main part of the story that I really connected with, and the relationship and concept of Gyllenhaal and Naomi Watts’ character was also pretty intriguing to me.
James: I’m curious what drew you to that relationship. Watts does a fine job with what she has to do. I was nearly on board with their developing friendship but found myself distracted by the minutiae. The circumstances surrounding their meeting read, to me, as slightly forced and more than a little stilted. I was happy that the film – Bryan Sipe (The Choice) wrote the screenplay – didn’t try and force a romance here but the more the movie kept going, the less agency I felt Watts’ character actually had. Did you see it differently?
Henry: Well, I just enjoyed how they relationship started. He writes this long letter to the vending machine company and then begins to get obsessed with all the little things in his life. And soon the two feel like pen pals, whether or not its that mature I still found it pretty entertaining. But I was going to mention the lack of romance between them because they easily could have forced that in but, instead, it was this genuine friendship of two estranged people just looking for nice company. I also liked his friendship with her son. He wasn’t a father figure, really, he was just a companion. For example, he continually gives terrible advice to the boy and usually lets him do dangerous things, which in some ways allowed the boy to free himself of what was troubling him. And while Watts had little to play with toward the end, I still found the concept of it refreshing.
James: The developing friendship between Gyllenhaal’s Davis and Watts’ son Chris (newcomer Judah Lewis) was a lot stronger than I thought it would be. I definitely credit the actors for that and thought they were adept enough to rise above what could have been really manipulative and cheap material in the wrong hands – I was really worried when Chris started opening up about his sexuality – but I guess I never felt completely engaged. There’s such an over-arching winking nature to the movie – especially through Davis’ voice over narration – such that, at times, Demolition felt like a parody of the kind of art-house, self-redemptive drama it actually was.
Henry: I’d say, for the most part, I liked the narration a good bit. But I feel like the first act, which I consider to be the weakest and most tonally confused of the film, his voiceover was used too much. Although I liked the way he talked about observing people and the strange new things he liked to enjoy after the tragedy. While it’s nowhere near as effective, it kind of reminded me of Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin in how the audience gets to watch people live through his eyes. And even though he’s a human being, he still feels disconnected with the world so, in some ways, he’s like an alien getting absorbed with interesting hobbies and philosophies. The parody aspect that you mentioned didn’t cross my mind when watching it, but maybe a second viewing may confirm that. Vallée’s style is something that kept me compelled, though. He may be an indie director but he definitely has his own unique visual style. Without him, this film could have completely imploded, as you said, but with him it added a energetic joy to it.
James: Vallée is certainly a talented filmmaker. I think he gives Demolition a nice gloss – one that sometimes doesn’t really feel deserved here – and I honestly believe he has a truly great film in him. The closest I think he’s gotten so far was Wild, a story that was elevated by his natural eye as a filmmaker (he didn’t really need to worry so much about plot there). He’s a subtle but graceful director and there’s a few sequences so well filmed here where Demolition almost, just barely, kind of worked for me. So much of dialogue and how the movie chose to dissect its themes just kind of made my eyes roll.
Henry: I did like Wild a good bit, but I think Dallas Buyers Club is his strongest film. It may at times hinge on the amazing performances, but Wild would sometimes repeat itself. In briefly going back to the first act, one of my favorite parts of Vallée’s style is his montages. He often does too many in Demolition, but how he breaks up scenes to make them have a unique flow is very appealing to me. He just needs the right source material and he could make an amazing film one day. And I actually liked how they handled Gyllenhaal’s character and the exploration of those themes. I had never seen a film before that after tragedy like he suffers, it shows someone trying to find anything enjoyable about his life, as well as just trying to have emotion. And I particularly had a lot of fun with him literally demolishing things to entertain himself. It may have been a blunt way of telling the audience what he was thinking, but it was still different from other films that have had similar themes and messages.
James: Gyllenhaal would make a great salesman for sure. Out of curiosity, do you have any thoughts on why Demolition seemed to implode at the box office this week? Do you think it had to do with the mixed reviews? Is Gyllenhaal not a big enough name to carry a movie?
Henry: I couldn’t say too much about why it performed so badly, but I was aware that the showings at film festivals and other critic reviews were somewhat mixed. I think neither Vallée nor Gyllenhaal are big enough names to make it financially successful, or at least overly so. I do strongly feel like both are very capable at objectively carrying one. I think Gyllenhaal needs at least one or two blockbusters to make him a bankable name. Although I honestly hope he never does join something like the Marvel Cinematic Universe or a big franchise like Fast & Furious because he is able to create these fascinating idiosyncrasies in his performances that are best utilized and showcased in films like Demolition and Prisoners.
James: Gyllenhaal tried the blockbuster route once before – see Prince or Persia, or better yet, don’t. I agree the path he’s been on as of late has been totally fascinating and a great evolution to watch – he so deserved an Oscar nod for Nightcrawler; I’m still rather bitter about that. It’s strange that even though I’m not too high on Demolition, I’m actually a little sad that it doesn’t look like it will succeed in the long run. Adult-driven character dramas (even ones as overly precious and a tad too slick like this one) seem almost like endangered animals in today’s cinematic marketplace, which totally depresses me. I didn’t totally care for the movie, but I would definitely like to see more movies like this made in the future.
Henry: Oh, I have seen Prince of Persia, I meant to say one that is truly successful on all fronts, kind of like Chris Pratt with Guardians of the Galaxy and Jurassic World. I do agree that films like these don’t come around too often, and while not all of them are phenomenal, I still appreciate and often get a lot more out of them compared to the remakes, sequels, and reboots that we are seeing more and more of. I mean, I still love those types of films, but it’s a shame that one like Nightcrawler (and Gyllenhaal’s performance) don’t get more attention from big audiences. I didn’t love Demolition but it nevertheless stands out as being an original, quirky indie piece that has a few evocative ideas.