There is no single way to deal with grief. Tragedies happen at specific times under specific circumstances that no one can control. It makes sense then that Davis Mitchell (Jake Gyllenhaal) seems like an apathetic, soulless husband when his wife dies in a car crash and he becomes fixated on getting money back from a vending machine that never gave him his candy. This weird fixation is one of the many things that Jean-Marc Vallée‘s latest film Demolition, offers as a form of comedy but drops when it might have to struggle with the dramatic weight of it.
While Davis begins to build a relationship with a customer service representative at a vending machine company over his increasingly personal admissions through complaints, he alienates himself from the rest of the world around him. His father-in-law and boss, Phil (Chris Cooper), is still grieving over his daughter’s passing while Davis maintains his careless demeanor. As Phil becomes insurmountably agitated by Davis, Davis becomes fixated upon the idea of taking apart things. A metaphor for taking apart his life and seeing whether he did actually love his wife – one which the movie allows to stand in the background when necessary.
Unfortunately, it is when Demolition decides to introduce ideas and then drop them out of nowhere that the film falters. The fixations on parts of a sentence, or some minor detail, seemingly disappear and never present a real struggle. The only struggle the movie consists of is one that the rest of the world places on Davis – why won’t he grieve like the rest of us? It would have been interesting, but the moment Naomi Watts is introduced grief becomes completely secondary to Demolition.
In fact, without Watts constantly stating that there is something ‘off’ about Gyllenhaal’s character, and the incessant complaining that Phil does, the film would never really seem like a man dealing with the loss of his wife. Instead, it winds up being a movie about moving on. Both Karen (Watts) and her son Chris (Judah Lewis), feel like a separate plot altogether, and one that seems far more interesting. The scenes with Karen and Davis, or Davis and Chris, felt like the strongest parts of the film both in terms of comedy and drama.
The problems mainly lie in Demolition‘s need to be both heartwarming and heartbreaking. The cast can more than handle it, and even the script is really well-written. It’s the frequent switching from drama to comedy that the film can’t seem to overcome. A specific scene in a hardware store with Davis and Chris is both strongly poignant and funny, because of the cast and the way that scene was written. It’s still a predictable structure with an extraneous amount of melodrama stuffed in its final half, but Vallée highlights the melodrama as opposed to subduing it.
One of the major problems I had with the earlier portions of the film is its requirement to have Gyllenhaal read his letters to the vending company aloud to the audience. It seemed like every letter was read in full, but it accentuates scenes where subtlety would have done wonders. An early letter describes how Davis always thought Phil hated him, showing his wedding where Phil walked his wife down the aisle going from smiles to scorn. Why not simply show that flashback? The film isn’t afraid to flashback to other times in Davis and his wife’s relationship, but because the movie can’t comprehend subtlety, it falls to terribly easy methods of conveying information.
Demolition should not have been so focused on having dramatic weight. It likely would have come through if the film didn’t wind up composed of melodrama and sadness all around him. He’s dealing with grief weirdly. We got it. When Davis asks whether “Crazy on You” by Heart is a sad song and then the film proceeds to montage with the song, that was when I realized Vallée botched the landing. Its use of licensed music is incredible and impacting for the most part, but it does a major disservice to a movie that wants heft. Demolition is an acting movie, and one where you do need to grow with the characters before you fall in love with them. But as a film, it lacks the impact it so badly craves.
Screening courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival.