'Demolition' Bulldozes Ahead

If you want to build your movie on a metaphor, you don't have to explain everything.


Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Naomi Watts, Chris Cooper, Judah Lewis
Rated: R
Studio: Fox Searchlight
Year: 2015
US date: 2016-04-08 (Limited release)
UK date: 2016-04-29 (General release)

“For some reason, everything has become a metaphor.” You can't blame Davis (Jake Gyllenhaal) for not knowing how he's come to this place, standing with a hammer in his hand, about to smash the walls of his upscale White Plains home. You can blame the movie he's in, however, for making poor Davis' many metaphors incessantly obvious.

Demolition begins as Davis is riding in the car. His wife, Julia (Heather Lind), is driving. He's doing his best to deflect her complaints that he's disengaged. "I have tools?" he jokes, when she proposes he fix their leaky refrigerator. Yes, you understand, he's a successful investment banker who prides himself on lacking even rudimentary emotional components; yes, you understand, Julia is frustrated.

No, you're not surprised when she's the means for the film's major metaphor, a car crash that sends Davis to a long, harrowing hospital hallway. Here he waits for a moment or two, looking bereft with a smudge of blood on his designer shirt, before he hears the devastating news you anticipate.

Losing his wife leads Davis on a journey of destruction and redemption, each step flagged and underlined. First, he needs a way to tell his story, to himself and you too, and so he begins writing letters to a vending machine company, complaining that in that hospital hallway, his selection of Peanut M&Ms was not vended. "You deserve the whole story," Davis writes, even as you might cringe at the confessional mechanism now set in motion.

When he writes more than one letter, he gets responses from the company's customer service rep, Karen (Naomi Watts). Worried that he sounds lonely and sad, she invites more storytelling.

Davis' isolation is profound but also trite. Apart from his letters to Karen, his only other outlet appears to be his understandably distressed father-in-law, Lewis (Chris Cooper), who also happens to be his boss at the investment bank. The point is clear: investment banking is a creepy-crawly profession, premised on exploitations and manipulations that don't even need to be articulated. It's enough to know this is what they do for a living: Davis must be fixed.

Still, the movie underscores the oppressiveness of the relationship, as Lewis and Davis' exchanges are shot in serial close-ups and grim spaces (an empty restaurant, at Lewis' fancy dinner table, or under sterile office lights). Thus, Davis' road trip in search of Karen makes sense but looks a little stalker-y too.

If Davis' lack of social skills recall Lou Bloom's narcissism, it's less chilling and allusive than the protagonist in Nightcrawler, but more familiar. His accidental but increasingly earnest connection to Karen is a contrivance to get him somewhere else.

Lucky for Davis, Karen also has an angry long-haired teenager, Chris (Judah Lewis). For their first encounter, in Karen's kitchen, the two channel mutual challenges and suspicions through a discussion about the most effective ways to to use the word "fuck", both being experts in their own domains. So colorful, and so allusive too. The conversation gives the two a chance to bond over their assorted resentments and traumas, while the scene suggests a world beyond Davis', which is fast becoming as claustrophobic for you as it is for him.

It's not that Demolition grants so much access to Chris' world, the daily risks inherent in high school, or the impossible negotiations forced on kids who don't fit in. Instead, the movie uses Chris to show Davis' limits. Working through gender identity questions, sorting out how to appear and what and whom to want, Chris brings into Davis' limited orbit brand new ideas of how to be.

Yet the film can't seem to help itself: child and not-exactly-father-figure spend time together, breaking rules and furniture, shooting guns at targets and each other (wearing vests), reminding you of Davis' arrested state more than it pursues Chris' trajectory. Advising Chris on how to be a man, Davis flounders. Chris faces moral and emotional complications that Davis, more or less by definition, can't fathom. But Davis' gradual evolution is costly for everyone around him.

As Davis puts it in an early letter to Karen, recalling his own father's advice, "If you want to fix something, you have to take everything apart." If you want to build your movie on a metaphor, you don't have to explain everything. Demolition bulldozes ahead. That Davis' evolution takes the form of still more breaking, of bodies as well as tables and picture frames, won't be news, given that Jean-Marc Vallée's movie opens on a dead wife as its primary and most pervasive metaphor.

As you know he must, Davis develops an affection for tools, particularly those he can use to fix his refrigerator and then dismantle his house. Check, and check. If only Demolition realized that Davis' "whole story" isn't nearly so interesting as the one Chris might be discovering off-screen.


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