Creative destruction is a concept that, for many of us, recalls the stereotypical young male who has just discovered he’s really into economic theory and is eager to share his newly acquired knowledge. I don’t know what it is about masculinity and destroying things, but the idea of destruction in itself is enough of a draw to attract many of us (see: every major blockbuster in the past twenty years), and the potential for something positive to come out of that satisfying act of breaking stuff is like a cherry on top. Demolition is a film that takes this idea, makes it both a metaphor and not a metaphor, is aware of what it’s doing, and makes its experience as pleasurable and interesting as it possibly can over the course of two hours.
Jake Gyllenhaal leads the derby as Davis Mitchell, who works in finance, although he lies about this when he meets strangers. His life is turned upside down right in our opening scene, a car crash that claims his wife’s life, mercifully shot so that although we know it’s coming—the shots consist of a close-up shot of his face, and one of her face sharing the space with the car window behind her—it’s not gratuitous and avoids cliché.
For those also worrying that “Jake Gyllenhaal’s wife dying” is becoming a cliché, be assured that this film departs drastically, in every way, from the other movie(s) employing a similar catalyst. His reaction to his wife’s death is downright odd, seemingly stoic at first, maybe in his own state of shock from the accident, but soon it becomes troubling. His obsession with a hospital vending machine refusing to cooperate is the first sign that something’s not right with this guy, and serves as a pleasantly bizarre mechanism through which he develops a relationship, over the phone at first, with the vending company’s customer service representative, played by Naomi Watts.
This movie is all over the place, but somehow it works. Its tangents, one amusingly featuring gypsy moths, suit the unhinged mindset of its protagonist. Something about it reminded me of Punch-Drunk Love, perhaps due to its unapologetically meandering plot (which does come together in a surprising way eventually) and its main character’s penchant for swinging large metal objects. Mostly, though, it’s Gyllenhaal almost re-channeling Donnie Darko—the death of his wife frees him from any obligation to social customs, which unleashes a particular aggressive humor that few actors can pull off. But instead of destroying the world around him, the story makes (abundantly) clear that his new appetite for destruction comes from a place of curiosity, an inspired interest in tearing things apart to see what they’re really made of, all in an effort to understand them, and himself, fully.
What seems to keep this movie from veering into either the realm of too weird or toward metaphor that’s way too heavy-handed, or some ungodly combo of both (and it teeters on edge of both of these! Perhaps that’s part of the thrill), is its seeming self-awareness. The narration mechanism in the form of these long, expository “complaint letters” plays with our expectations; at first, it seems as though he’s writing one long letter that will run throughout the movie, then it ends, then he starts another one. It’s obviously a contrived thing, but it’s funny enough to roll with, and once we get that taste of whimsy, the rest of it goes down easy. It’s in the narration itself that Davis mentions that he’s finding metaphors everywhere (and repeats it so he knows we’re listening), which we ought to interpret as “yes, this is all a metaphor, but just bear with me.”
And yet this central metaphor that critics are pointing out remains interesting because it’s being interpreted in a number of ways. There’s the idea that Davis has to tear his life apart in order to rebuild it all again following the death of his wife, which is fair. But we don’t really see much rebuilding happening in all the times he takes things apart. It’s not so much that the destruction allows new things to spring up, but that the destruction itself, in some way, illuminates.
It doesn’t necessary point to a path forward, but provides a clearer sense of the path that’s been travelled (not unlike director Jean-Marc Vallée’s previous film, the excellent Wild). This is also a regressive act—breaking things is the way toddlers (especially boys) express themselves and learn about the world around them. There is information that Davis learns through the wreckage he causes that helps him understand the world he was living in, and offers the audience clarity in the answers he and we had been seeking all along, and paves the way for an ending far more satisfying than expected.
Vallée and screenwriter Bryan Sipe deserve all the praise that’s sure to be coming to them for Demolition; it’s a rare story that’s allowed the freedom to wander around and find itself, allowing us to find it in the process, which is a special feeling, particularly at a film festival. Likewise, the supporting performances given by Chris Cooper, Naomi Watts and young actor Judah Lewis add to its texture. But it’s still Gyllenhaal’s show, and he proves once again why he’s one of the most exciting actors around, surprising us at every turn, in every scene, every reaction, in his restraint or his extreme emotiveness—the thrill comes from watching what he’ll do next.
Demolition finds a way to make its heavy-handed grief metaphor into a pleasingly self-aware and abundantly entertaining smash of a movie.