Grief is a funny thing; its affects on people change not only the person experiencing such a powerful and life-altering emotion, but it changes the way people around you view you, and the choices people make around you. One of the many emotions and reflections that the film allowed me to analyze was, thankfully for myself, the lack of grief that I have had to experience in my life thus far, and the amount of grief stricken in the world around me, with numerous people who have directly dealt with lose first-hand in my life everyday.
Jean-Marc Vallée, the director of many heavy-handed drama films like C.R.A.Z.Y., The Young Victoria, The Dallas Buyers Club, Café de Flore and Wild, really loves to make movies with heavy use of symbolism. In his newest directorial effort, Demolition, the symbolism for the deconstruction of Davis’ life, played unflinchingly by the always stellar Jake Gyllenhaal, really doesn’t hold back its explicit nature. Living an overall numb life from the moment we meet him, Davis seems to live each and everyday with very little to almost no real, pure emotions. Rather, explaining the paths of his life with monotone vigour, including the timeline of his wife’s life, their meeting, and ultimately, her tragic death, Davis becomes avery difficult man to like, in all aspects of his life.
What’s funny about Demolition is, the film’s life begins with Julia’s (Heather Lind) death. In some of the very first and brief scenes of the film, we see Julia and Davis interact, almost as any other couple would; comfortable, passively and without much conviction. What starts off as a simple conversation in the car between husband and wife, quickly turns deadly, as the car is hit, Davis is bloody in a hospital waiting room with his in-laws Fil and Margot (Chris Cooper and Polly Draper) waiting on the news of his wife’s fate. As we see in the trailer, Julia never makes it. Fortunately for us, Vallée has an amazing way of allowing audiences to see an obscure and unexplored perspective on so many moments we come to expect to see in film, and turns them on its head. For example, after the news of Julia’s death, Davis makes his way into the operating room where his wife once laid. The room, empty and full of blood on the floors, white operating sheets and medical tools used to attempt to save her life, is one of the first very poignant images Vallée has become famous with offering, giving perspective on the very real images of life, more specifically, on a moment many people never really see or associate with death on a hospital bed; an empty bed with nothing but blood and shattered prayers.
As the early reviews of this film began to flood online after its initial premiere and choice as the opening night film for TIFF 40 in 2015, Demolition has seem to be one universally accepted film to divide people. Going into the film, I was wondering why. I mean, Gyllenhaal is one of the supreme acting forces of our young generation, Vallée is an excellent storyteller and director, and the supporting cast and crew is nothing short of talented, yet, the film, scripted by Bryan Sipe tells a very discombobulated tale of one many’s very operatic struggle to cope with one of two things; the death of his wife, or the realization that he was never in love with the woman he was married to. The film begins to show, not why, but, all the if’s in Davis’ life.
At times, do not get me wrong, Vallée’s film is nothing short of emotional. But the emotions cannot be ignored to being very manipulative, using scenes of loss and confusion to justify erratic behaviour of characters whose backstories are mostly absent to us. For one, Davis, we come to the understanding early, suffers from common emotional displays of affection and genuine love, yet, without spoiling the ending of the film, does offer many questions to the audiences. Why does he choose a path of destruction for answers? What are his obsessions with others? Why is he fascinated with certain people and not others? The film, which is suppose to be a very realistic, post-trauma film humanizing the loss and pain people feel during times of distress and disbelief, becomes a very segregated film about the pains and struggles about real people, living very real lives, doing very cinematically pleasing things. One of my biggest peeves with the film is showing too much about the stress and grief of Davis’ loss,and less with the understanding why he is like this, who he was before and what he was like when he was married.
Amongst his loss, Davis begins a courtship with a vending machine early on, well, maybe not with the machine itself, but with the people behind the operating and handling of the vending machine services. After a slew of personal letters that are suppose to help him express his emotions on paper, Davis begins writing personal complain letters to Champion Vending due to the lack of delivery of his M&M’s ten prior to his wife’s death. Eventually, his letters to the customer service department of the company puts him in a direct path to a creepy meeting with the human resource department head of Champion Vending, Karen Moreno (Naomi Watts), a very confused and inadequate mother who spends her evenings creepily following Davis. If film does one thing spectacularly, its always making the creepy seem cute, because the way in which Karen and Davis begin their friendship, is nothing short of scary. Yet, as the movie progresses, the more we learn about Karen and her broken relationships with her partner Carl (C.J. Wilson) and most of all, her son, Chris (Judah Lewis) who may or may not be an angsty, gay, metal-head genius, the more we are connected to Davis’ loss despite his falling out with his boss and wife’s father Fil and the more we empathize with Karen, for her lack of being a good mother and partner. Karen is never really redeemed as a character in the film, desite being played by a very strong actor in Watts. It almost feels that anyone could have really played Karen, its just a matter of how much we would be able to hold in our laughs with her unexplainable life choices.
Much like Vallée’s previous film Wild, the film is less about the conclusion, and more about the process, or in this case, the psychosis of his character’s choices. What allows Davis’ to find solace in knowing he never loved his wife? Why does he choose to destroy everything that Julia touched? Why is he so suddenly close to Karen? What’s next? The film asks every important question, never coming close to answering anything, yet never really allowing audiences to ask the same questions due to its very absurd relatable exterior. It becomes clear very early on, answers are not anywhere on the horizon, but the story does takes two or three very unexpected turns where the heart of the movie begins to show, but then gets buried in indie film bait categories and by-the-numbers Oscar ploys.
As I mentioned in the first paragraph of this review, Demolition played more of a research project than it did as a film review, hence why I have waited to complete this review days after its release. After suggesting the film to many friends and family members, including people who have directly lost loved ones, no one seems to have a consensus on this film, usually always veering in the direction of; Gyllenhaal’s performance was excellent (which we know), I liked it, but don’t know why I liked it (which does not help); and my favourite reaction was speaking about the film to someone who loved it, and expressing my thoughts which therefore changed their opinion of the film entirely by the end of the conversation. Which inadvertently proves my whole theory of the film: what exactly was trying to be said with it?
Demolition is easily on of the most inconsistent films I have seen in a while, which isn’t a bad thing, but isn’t a good thing. The performances are fantastic, the direction and look of it is sleek and pleasing, and some scenes really offer some redemption towards being humorous, heartfelt and endearing, but as a reader who, again, did not know where the film was going, asks where all these emotions went to. I mean, narratively speaking, all the characters find a conclusion to their stories in the film, but the conclusions offer give us no reasonable sense of self-worth or moral strain towards similar cases in our own lives.
When it comes to certainties, I can confidently say that Demolition is a very purposely flawed film, because, like each and every human being, we deal and suffer through grief in very personal and different ways. Whether its gallivanting in the streets listening to words of the Wilson sister’s wail their most memorable lyrics, destroying your home, or finding a very inexplainable solution to your very confused emotions, Demolition is a very misguided and hard to navigate wrecking ball for audiences that just might make it crazy on you.
Night Film Reviews: 5 Our of 10 Stars.
Seen Demolition yet? What did you think? Destructive piece of melodramatic cinema or misunderstood masterpiece? How was Jake? How was Naomi? Am I missing the point or need to have experienced direct loss to understand it? Leave your thoughts and destructive heart on the page below. Just be gentle.