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Demolition

D: Jean-Marc Vallée / 102m

Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Naomi Watts, Chris Cooper, Judah Lewis, C.J. Wilson, Polly Draper, Heather Lind

There’s a scene early on in Demolition, the latest feature from the director of Wild (2014) and Dallas Buyers Club (2013), where Jake Gyllenhaal’s character, an investment banker named Davis Mitchell, attempts to get some M&M’s from a hospital vending machine, but the M&M’s don’t drop down. He hits it a couple of times, then asks one of the hospital staff if they can open it; the answer is no, because it’s not owned by the hospital. This prompts Davis to write a letter of complaint to the Champion Vending Company, which begins, “Dear Champion Vending Company: I put five quarters in your machine and proceeded to push B2, which should have given me peanut M&M’s. Regrettably, it did not. I found this upsetting, as I was very hungry, and also my wife had died ten minutes earlier.”

Now, on the face of it, this is a great way in which to begin exploring the mindset of a recently bereaved husband, but Bryan Sipe’s unconvincing screenplay hasn’t told us enough about Davis so far for the audience to make a judgment as to whether or not this is funny, sad, poignant, or revealing. Instead, it invites the viewer into Davis’s world by getting him to expand on his relationship and marriage with his recently deceased wife, Julia (Lind), but through the medium of letters to the vending company. It’s an awkward plot device because we don’t know if this is a legitimate way for Davis to deal – initially – with his grief at losing his wife in a tragic car accident. It’s awkward because, outside of these letters, Davis acts like he’s okay and he’s dealing with it all pretty well.

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At first, at least. Something his father-in-law, and boss, Phil (Cooper), says to him sends Davis off on another tack, that of dismantling things to see what they’re made of, and how they work. To this end he dismantles light fixtures and bathroom stalls at his place of work, along with his computer, and at home, a coffee machine. He takes these things apart, lines the various component parts in neat groups, and then leaves them where they are. At work it all leads to Davis being told to take some time off, while at home it leaves him restless and unfocused. When he receives a late night call from a woman called Karen Moreno (Watts), the vending company’s customer service manager and someone who has read and connected with his letters, Davis is intrigued enough by her call to want to learn more about her.

Again, though, Sipe’s screenplay – and Vallée’s direction – doesn’t make it clear just why Karen connects with Davis, and vice versa. It’s true that Davis is behaving oddly, and it’s true that Karen is a needy single mother who has the ability to behave in an equally odd manner (she stalks him until he talks to her on a train), but just why these two people find support and a degree of comfort in each other is left floating in the wind. You could argue that the script requires them to, and that would be a reasonable enough answer, but the script doesn’t legitimise their relationship, even as it develops, and especially with the introduction of Karen’s fifteen year old son, Chris (Lewis). Here, Davis is pared away from Karen and inxplicably, takes on the role of father figure to Chris.

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It’s another decision made by the movie that takes Davis further and further away from the grief and (implied) despair he’s meant to be feeling following Julia’s death, and into an area where he becomes an unofficial member of Karen and Chris’s disjointed family. Meanwhile, Phil decides to use Julia’s memory to start a foundation and needs Davis to sign off on it. But Davis drags his heels, and again, the script doesn’t provide any ready answers as to why. By the two thirds mark, most viewers would be forgiven for wondering if any of Davis’s decisions have a point to them or are based on any recognisable emotions. This is because the movie is a frustrating exercise in character development and emotional withdrawal that coasts along with little regard for cause and effect, or the demands of a cohesive narrative.

It will come as no surprise that Demolition ends with everything wrapped up neatly (and with a pretty bow on top), and viewers who do manage to make it this far will be asking themselves what all the fuss was about in terms of the storyline and a handful of subplots that pop up every so often but don’t add anything to the overall narrative (a revelation regarding Julia comes out of nowhere and goes back there pretty quickly without having any real effect whatsoever). It’s hard to engage with any of the characters except on a superficial level, and the quality of the characterisations is such that even Gyllenhaal and Watts – two extremely capable actors – can only do so much with them before repetition sets in and their efforts fail to have any impact.

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Vallée’s direction is also a problem. While there’s a kernel of a great idea here – widower tries to make sense of his own grief by rebuilding his life from the ground up – Vallée doesn’t have any answers to the problems that are inherent in the script. This leaves the movie plodding along for several stretches (particularly when Davis enlists Chris in the demolition of his home), and any emotional high points lacking punch or dramatic intensity. It’s a visually well-constructed movie, however, with Vallée proving once again that he has an eye for composition and filling a frame with relevant information in support of the story, and he’s ably supported by his regular DoP Yves Bélanger. But it’s not enough to hide the ways in which Sipe and his wayward screenplay fails to explore Davis’s grief and Karen’s lack of confidence.

Rating: 5/10 – given Vallée’s previous movies (and their success), his work on Demolition and partnership with Gyllenhaal seems like a guarantee of quality, but there are too many problems with the script for even this combination to improve things; the movie aims for a kind of heightened realism at times, and while this is an admirable ambition, the fact that it doesn’t even come near is a good indication of how difficult it’s been to translate Sipe’s undercooked screenplay for the screen.

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