Director Jean-Marc Vallée might not receive an editing credit on his latest film, “Demolition,” but his fingerprints are as visible in the rhythm as they were in “Dallas Buyers Club” and “Wild.” (Vallée was credited under the pseudonym John Mac McMurphy for the two films, which he also directed.) In many ways, the effort feels like the closing of a loose thematic and visual trilogy for him. Each film replicates the emotional landscape of a character who gets shaken up by the realization of their own mortality and thus makes a drastic course correction in their own life.
For Jake Gyllenhaal’s Davis Mitchell, that abrupt discovery comes about when his wife dies tragically in a car accident – while he, in the passenger seat, escapes virtually untouched from the wreck. The cliché that normally follows such a traumatic event is the overwrought, grief-stricken husband schtick. “Demolition” goes in the opposite direction. Davis feels absolutely nothing. That’s not to say he feels hatred of his late wife or excitement over her passing (a la “About Schmidt” or, heaven forbid, “Dirty Grandpa“). He’s just numb.
Vallée does not shy away from the challenge of portraying such entropy and attempts to replicate that sensation of feeling desensitized and unresponsive to all the cues that one’s surroundings can throw. In “Demolition,” that looks a lot like destroying the “scene” as it is commonly known. Shots bleed into each other, but they also break off mid-thought and even jump wildly to a tangent. Each successive time Vallée has employed this impressionistic style, it becomes less a service to the story and more of a replacement for it. In other words, reactions likely vary based on feelings towards the character or story.
In what was either a genius or bombastic move, screenwriter Brian Sipe decides to include the line “everything has become a metaphor” fairly early in the proceedings. It essentially grants license for Vallée to do his thing, for logic to come second to emotion, and for anything repeated to take on a heightened significance. There is quite a bit to chew on in “Demolition,” from how physical demolition corresponds to personal deconstruction as well as how Davis’ finance career playing with invisible money leads him to feel like he has created nothing tangible.
Gyllenhaal’s performance, which embraces the uglier and more pedantic sides of Davis’ being, provides a tricky balance of making a fully-formed character with allowing himself to be clay for Vallée to mold. To call his work a “blank slate” does not do his delicate maneuvering justice. It’s a turn that recalls Bradley Cooper in “Silver Linings Playbook” but opens out, thriving off of a viewer willing to find themselves in one fleeting shot or moment. And sure, the characters around him are only as developed as necessary to produce a change in Davis. Yet we are all the stars in the movie that is our life, and much of our journey mirrors that of the one in “Demolition” – figuring out how to share the spotlight and find some sense of stability. B+ /