★ ★ ½
Jean-Marc Vallée (Wild, Dallas Buyers Club) has amassed an impressive filmography recently by focusing on the inner turmoil of conflicted characters, proving himself adept at deconstructing the psyche of someone faced with seemingly insurmountable odds. Demolition follows in that vein with its portrayal of a man struggling with his lack of empathy for a deceased spouse. However, Vallée and screenwriter Brian Sipe throw subtlety to the wind in this flat, heavy-handed look at coping with an immense personal tragedy.
Davis Mitchell (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a successful Wall Street investment banker married to Julia (Heather Lind), the daughter of his boss Phil (Chris Cooper). Their idyllic life in suburban New York is upended when Julia is killed in a car accident, and the movie makes sure to highlight that Davis is not only a passenger in the car at the time, but a passenger in his own life (again, this may be the most blatantly obvious drama of the year). It takes the death of his partner for Davis to realize that he had a stagnant marriage, an unfulfilling career, and a sense of general malaise and detachment from his life. He returns to work almost immediately after the accident, much to the surprise of the devastated Phil. His father-in-law encourages him to “take apart” his life, which Davis interprets literally as he begins dismantling a creaky bathroom stall, a stubborn ice maker in his refrigerator, and any other machine he can get his hands on.
This newfound interest in the inner workings of the things around him prompts a series of complaints to a vending-machine company, and these letters (one of which he pens in the middle of the wake for his late wife at his own home) become a deeply personal coping mechanism as he spouts intimate details about his life and marriage. The missives are eventually answered by quirky customer-service representative Karen (Naomi Watts), who takes an interest in the wounded Davis. Karen is a single mother to a glam-rock-obsessed teen named Chris (Judah Lewis) who’s grappling with his own identity, and she soon begins seeing this unusual man sending her complaint letters. The emotionally damaged pair attempt to support each other’s hardships, and Davis starts spending time with Chris while continuing to take a sledgehammer to his emotional and professional lives.
Despite being expertly acted, the movie amounts to very little due to Vallée’s surprisingly uneven direction. He tries to make Demolition a sprawling portrait of introspection and desperation, but cannot pull all of the pieces together. There are some emotional moments between the grief-stricken Phil and Davis regarding a stipulation in Julia’s will, as well as some affecting exchanges between Davis and the young Chris, but they’re dragged down by a story that never settles on a single tone. Gyllenhaal, Watts, and Lewis share a natural rapport, but the script’s forced profundities undermine the believability of their interactions. It amounts to a serio-comedy that’s too self-serious to elicit any true laughs, and too quick to resort to clichéd revelations to say anything meaningful. The symbolism here arrives in the form of blunt-force obviousness and the plot wraps up in a tidy resolution—a shame because we know that this talented director and cast are capable of so much more.