Jake Gyllenhaal is a master at doing crazy (as in Nightcrawler and Prisoners), and so in Demolition as Davis, a man who is not equipped to deal with the death of his wife, he achieves another stunning performance. Demolition is a psychological study of the grieving process in someone who is alienated from his emotions and therefore lacking empathy for others’ feelings.
When his wife Julia (Lind) dies in a car accident (she, driving and he, a passenger), Davis exhibits little outward emotion, although we can imagine he is hurting inside when we’re shown his associations and memories of her. Although he’s not particularly close to his father-in-law (Cooper), they work together, and Davis remembers an observation Phil made at one time. It had to do with healing the heart, and how one must take it all apart and put it back together in order to heal.
Davis takes this literally as well as metaphorically, and begins to do just that, first with the refrigerator his wife had told him was leaking in their last conversation, and gradually the urge to demolish more and more things increases. He is rather compulsive, so is always interested in doing a thorough job.
This quality surfaces immediately at the hospital in the intensive care unit, where he tries to buy some M&Ms from a vending machine, but the package gets stuck on the way down. He takes a picture of the machine number, and proceeds to write the company for a refund. But he doesn’t stick to the matter at hand, he writes his life history in letter after letter. Of course, this comes to the attention of the Customer Care service woman, Karen (Watts). She herself is rather kooky, and her son Chris (Lewis) is an astute, lonely kid.
The connection made between Davis and Karen is one that makes you think of the belief that things happen for a reason or that people become attracted to one another to fill unconscious needs. At any rate, even though they appear not to have much in common at all, they strike up a friendship, which means that Davis and Chris spend a fair amount of time together. Interestingly, regressive experiences back to childhood link Davis and Karen together, and allows Davis to provide the kind of male understanding that Chris needs—not that everything that happens is sensible, but it does seem to be therapeutic.
Director Jean-Marc Vallee has previously demonstrated his keen understanding of human psychological make-up and development in Wild and Dallas Buyers Club; and in Demolition with the writer Bryan Sipe, he shows how creative people are in getting their needs met and doing what they need to do to heal. This is sometimes a painstaking process and not always one that makes conventional sense. One of the many things I like about his work is how true to life it is, and how it demonstrates surprisingly effective ways in which we heal ourselves. Humanity always reigns supreme in his work.
I’ve mentioned how Gyllenhaal absolutely knew, understood, and portrayed the character of Davis, and Naomi Watts and Chris Cooper are right on target with their roles. Watts is a natural for females who seem neurotic, but are actually stalwart (Birdman). Cooper is versatile in a variety of roles he has played in American Beauty, Adaptaion, Lone Star, August: Osage County, and Breach; here, he combines an aggressive Wall Street trader and a tender-hearted father. The young actor Lewis captures the persona of a troubled teenager who is desperately looking for assistance in constructing his identity. Guidance in the form of deconstruction (demolition) comes from an unlikely source, that of the troubled Davis.
Demolition, a film for the psychologically minded.