When will you ladies learn? If you marry Jake Gyllenhaal, you’re going to die. Demolition is the third feature in the young actor’s oeuvre where the former Bubble Boy has to deal with the death of his wife. The previous two films being: last year’s Southpaw and 2002’s Moonlight Mile, which twisted the variant slightly in that it was only Gyllenhaal’s fiancée that was whacked.
This time around, Gyllenhaal plays Davis Mitchell, a successful investment banker at his father-in-law’s firm. After a tragic car crash leaves Davis unscathed but takes the life of his wife (Heather Lind, Mistress America), insult is added to in injury when a faulty vending machine refuses to give the new widower a candy bar in the trauma waiting room. This red herring of a plot device serves, basically, for no other reason than to introduce Davis to Naomi Watts’ Karen, a customer service rep for the vending machine company. This is all done, by the way, through the lost art of letter writing (or Exposition 101).
Left alone in his chic, ultra-modern house, Davis takes his father-in-law’s advice (the always reliable Chris Cooper) literally, “In order to know how a relationship works, you first have to take it a part.” This leads to the dismantling of his fridge, work computer, and eventually his house. As an exercise of misplaced grief, this conceit works reasonably well and, if it was used to the affect of dissecting Davis’ marriage, director Jean Marc Valee (Wild and Dallas Buyers Club) could well have exploited that metaphor to a more intellectual end.
Bryan Sipe’s screenplay and its protagonist, however, quickly move to the visceral. Instead of just finding out how stuff works, Davis just wants to destroy stuff. He joins a construction crew to help demolish houses and, when he steps on a nail, that pain is the first real emotion that he feels. Soon, he’s wearing a bulletproof vest out in the woods with a fifteen-year-old boy firing at him and dancing through the streets of New York City listening to Cave’s “Sweaty Fingers.” And then, a fateful meeting in the cemetery brings everything into focus and everybody’s happy. The End.
The major problem with this film is that it pushes all the relationships to the side. Cooper does his duty as the grieving father that grows increasingly frustrated with Davis and his antics. He tries repeatedly to get him to seek counseling or, at the very least, sign the legal papers to allow a scholarship to be established in his deceased wife’s name. What is surprising, however, is the restraint the filmmakers take in the relationship between Davis and Karen. There is true friendship there that is never pushed to romance, though whenever a man and woman become friends, everyone assumes that there is more to the relationship. As with everything that Naomi Watts is in, you just wish there was more of her in it. She gives a very nicely understated performance as a lonely stoner mother.
Oh yeah, that fifteen-year-old kid that shoots Gyllenhaal in the woods, that’s Watts’ sexually confused son (who somehow has the best iTunes library this side of Rick Ruben). Relative newcomer, Judah Lewis (Point Break), gives a solid performance as Davis’ cohort in destruction but the majority of their scenes could be cribbed from any one of several indie films centering on the coming out experience.. It feels like just another distraction from a story that was supposed to be about grieving the loss of a loved one.
Demolition, overall, feels like a high class Zach Braff film with great performances meandering through a quirky story and a soundtrack filled with obscure indie rock bands.