Davis looks like a master of the universe with every single piece of the American Dream bought and paid for thanks to the exploitation of generations before him. Life — his life — is perfect, because he gets to believe the illusion that his hard work has made it all possible. But what does he know?
This life, as presented by screenwriter Bryan Sipe (The Choice) and wunderkind director Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club, Wild), is in desperate need of critical evaluation down to the core, the likes of which might render Davis unable to recover and live as blindly ever again.
Demolition places Davis (Jake Gyllenhaal) in the passenger seat of his car next to his lovely wife Julia (Heather Lind). She’s a hazy dream, an ideal that we, the audience, have no chance to get to know as her own distinct character because within moments we watch Davis lose her in a car accident. It is a sudden and shocking disruption, to be sure, but somehow not as impactful for us as we might imagine. Like I said, we never knew her.
And soon Davis realizes that he didn’t either. He sits in a hospital waiting room, barely harmed. He’s in shock, you might assume, lost in the fragments of those final moments with Julia. He heads over to a vending machine, plugs in some coins and doesn’t receive anything in return. He shakes the machine, forcing it to comply, to give him something. It refuses.
He pens a letter, the first of many to the vending company, but these missives quickly spiral far beyond mere complaints about a faulty machine. He starts unloading the burden of his life, all of the things he doesn’t know, will never understand or know about Julia and their life together, why he can’t seem to feel anything. He speaks in these letters the way he might to someone close, a friend or a parent, a therapist, possibly.
The truth is Davis has no one like that, not a single person who he might willingly go to in this moment. Julia’s father Phil (Chris Cooper), who also happens to be his boss at a successful investment banking institution, attempts to provide advice and a shoulder, despite the fact that there’s an obvious disconnect between the two men. Phil, in one genius stroke, tells Davis that in order to figure out what’s going on, sometimes you have to break it down.
In his not-quite grief, Davis seizes on that idea — the almost counter-intuitive notion of a kind of freedom in grief — and decides to do just that. And Demolition, as a film, takes flight. Davis begins to deconstruct everything around him. Literally — this means pulling out tools, the expensive kind a white-collar guy like Davis would have but rarely if ever use, and taking physical elements apart, getting down to the nuts and bolts of all the structures defining the space around him.
It is fascinating to watch Davis “seeing” the world for what it is — how dreams and memories are nothing more than cobbled-together pieces of synaptic impulses firing in our heads and how love, when stripped of all the significance we so desperately attach to it, might have no meaning.
Demolition is the perfect vehicle for Gyllenhaal. You get the sense that not a single choice he has ever made as an actor has been rooted in concerns for vanity or financial gain. He’s not chasing superstar status or franchise gold. He’s already broken through those delusions of grandeur and refused to look back at the pieces left in his wake.
And as much as this film fits him, so too it seems Demolition does its director. Jean-Marc Vallée has demolished the boundaries between studio and industry sensibilities. What’s surprising about his approach and his success thus far is how he’s accomplished it through broken characters: a too-young queen (Emily Blunt) unsteady in those early years in The Young Victoria; a mother (Vanessa Paradis) fiercely caught up in protecting her special-needs child and a successful DJ (Kevin Parent) navigating life after divorce in Café de Flore; hustler Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) building an AIDS treatment scheme in Dallas Buyers Club; Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) embarking on a crazy 1,000-plus-mile hike on the road to recovery in Wild.
Each of them, just like Davis, takes a sledgehammer to the world around them. I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait to see what Vallée decides to swing at next. (Opens wide Friday) (R) Grade: B+