Film Review: “Demolition” — Destruction Made Fascinating

Demolition eschews the conventional, spinning its way to a completely unforeseen yet beautifully apt conclusion.

Demolition, directed by Jean-Marc Vallee. At AMC Boston, Kendall Square Cinema, and Somerville Theatre.

Jake G in a scene in "Demolition."

Jake Gyllenhaal contemplating more demolition in a scene in “Demolition.”

By Paul Dervis

Imagine director John Cassavetes (1929-1989) rising from the grave and making one more of his trademark films, all of his rambling improvisational glory in tact, complete with flashy images and (seemingly) non sequitur scenes. Many loved his improvisational films; just as many hated them. You can clearly put me in the category of the former.

Demolition is the big budget film Cassavetes was never given the resources to make. If he had the backing, it is easy to fantasize how this early master of independent cinema would have fashioned this narrative. One can see influences in Demolition from Cassavetes’ films Husbands, Faces, and especially A Woman Under the Influence. Not a bad lineage.

Bryan Sipe penned the script, but it was clearly ‘made’ by director Jean-Marc Vallee, who helmed last year’s unconventional survival adventure, Wild, which starred Reese Witherspoon (and resurrected the brilliant career of Laura Dern). Once again, he has taken box office Hollywood actors who have made checkered career choices and given them plenty of raw thespian meat to chew on. Here his star is Jake Gyllenhaal, who for over a decade had been performing smaller parts in generally forgettable movies. He broke through with the provocative Brokeback Mountain in 2005, which made him a name. But he has followed it up with few significant/artful films. He ends that streak here.

Gyllenhaal plays Davis, an investment broker obsessed with his career. He comes from humble means, but ends up marrying a CEO’s daughter and is fast tracked in the old man’s firm. He loves his wife, but craves his work more. Julia (played with bedrock stoicism by Heather Lind) is driving hubby into Manhattan one morning, bitching about the lack of communication in their relationship, when their car is T-boned at an intersection. She is killed; he comes out unscathed.

We all deal with tragedy differently; Davis is more eccentric than most. While sitting in the hospital, having just found out Julia won’t make it, he goes to the vending machine to buy a bag of M&Ms. The candy gets stuck. A dollar twenty-five down the tubes. For a man with as obsessive a personality as Davis, this can not stand. He writes to the complaint department of the vendor, but cannot stop at simply charging that “your machine ate my quarter.” He has a need to tell his whole story. Not once; not twice; four times. Davis is losing it.

Karen (Naomi Watts, in her most compelling role to date) is the complaint department. She is the dope smoking single mother of a sexually confused teen-age boy and she is sleeping with her brutish boss. However, she is so touched by Davis’s stream of consciousness letters about his tragedy that she decides, at three in the morning, to call him. Of course, he is awake.

After going through various levels of ambivalence during a series of calls, the pair finally meet in person and start their own personal club for damaged singles. Are they friends? Lovers? Hard to tell, life is not so simple.

Meanwhile, Davis is breaking down at work. He starts to take things apart. A door in the Men’s Room stall. A light fixture. His computer. Eventually he rips apart his own fashionable home, starting with his refrigerator and ending with the walls of the house.

Somehow, Davis seems to find salvation in Karen’s son, though the guy is hardly fit to be a positive role modal. Together, each supplies the other with the means for emotional survival. Judah Lewis plays the pubescent boy and he is anything but your typical quirky kid so often seen in today’s films. He is at once frightening and pathetic, in way that demands your empathy.

Davis believes he’s being stalked by a man in a station wagon. He believes the driver is the kind of sinister figure that most Hollywood films would have made him. Davis finally has a confrontation with the fellow. But Demolition eschews the conventional, spinning its way to a completely unforeseen yet beautifully apt conclusion.

The film’s characters are well drawn, and conflict abounds, but when all is said and done it is clear that there are no good or bad people in Demolition, simply healthy and unhealthy situations. This is a visually distinctive, unpredictable, and haunting film. Some people will love it. Some people will hate it….just like the innovative work of Cassavetes.

Paul Dervis has been teaching drama in Canada at Algonquin College as well as the theatre conservatory Ottawa School of Speech & Drama for the past 15 years. Previously he ran theatre companies in Boston, New York, and Montreal. He has directed over 150 stage productions, receiving two dozen awards for his work. Paul has also directed six films, the most recent being 2011’s The Righteous Tithe.

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