Jake Gyllenhaal spends much of Demolition smashing things into tiny pieces with a hammer. I envied him. It’s what I wish I could have done to this film.
Demolition is a horrible movie about horrible people doing horrible things. In it, Gyllenhaal plays Davis Mitchell, a sociopath-slash-investment banker who watches his wife Julia (Heather Lind in a thankless role) die in a tragic car accident. Naturally, Davis’ next step is to reveal the private details of his loveless marriage, Julia’s death, and his whole life story in a series of complaint letters to a vending company after his Peanut M&M’s get stuck in the hospital vending machine. Yes, it’s really that contrived.
Karen Moreno (Naomi Watts, whose talents are completely wasted) is the woman reading these letters. She’s a sociopath-slash-customer service representative who takes pity upon Davis and begins to stalk him around town. Eventually the two meet, form a bond of some sort, and Davis learns to cope with the death of his wife by smashing his refrigerator full of San Pellegrino and Vita Coco with a large hammer. Or something.
The film is desperate to correlate this imagery of broken walls, furniture, and appliances with its message: that sometimes life needs to be broken down before it can be built back up again. A noble sentiment, but does it require symbolism that’s as subtle as a bulldozer driving through a house? Can’t the point be conveyed without having Davis literally drive a bulldozer through the luxurious modern home that he and his wife used to share?
This protagonist is toxic, hateful, and approximately a thousand times creepier than Gyllenhaal’s character in Nightcrawler (2014). Throughout the film, Davis lies to people, spies on people, manipulates people, belittles people, and generally acts like a selfish asshole. He impulsively destroys others’ property. He’s frigid and rude to his grieving in-laws (Chris Cooper and Polly Draper). He ignores his wife while she’s alive, and insults her memory when she’s dead.
I could go on and on, but I’ll let the MPAA’s R rating “for disturbing behavior” speak for itself. Needless to say, this abhorrent character made the act of watching the film extremely unpleasant. This is despite a fantastically committed performance by Gyllenhaal, who continually proves to be one of his generation’s greatest talents, and is far and away the best thing about the film.
The director, Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club, Wild) attempts to give the limp, aimless story some kind of energy by stuffing the film with rock tunes, shaking the camera about, and employing some flashy, artsy editing flourishes. But these techniques can’t mask the falseness of writer Bryan Sipe’s script, which is flawed at its very core. Davis didn’t love his wife. He didn’t even like her very much. We know this because he writes it in one of his letters to Karen. So why is he acting out this way? It’s certainly not out of grief or despair. Thus, if the central conflict doesn’t make any sense, why should we as an audience care?
If one were to take a wrecking ball to Demolition and rebuild it from the ground up, it would be possible to create a powerful, sturdy foundation. But, despite the best efforts of Gyllenhaal, Watts, Cooper, and bright newcomer Judah Lewis as Karen’s rebellious teenage son, it’s a hollow shell of a film.