'Demolition' Offers an Audacious Take on Grief

‘Demolition,’ starring Jake Gyllenhaal, tries to subvert the traditional depiction of mourning in the cinema. But despite its audacity, the film lacks lucidity and moves in too many directions.

Numerous films have tried to capture the essence of mourning in its various forms: a husband’s mourning for his wife, a wife’s for her husband, sons and daughters for their parents and parents for their children. In “Demolition,” the French-Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée tackles the subject from a different angle. In fact, it is a daring angle, and the film is rife with the same degree of eccentricity that characterized his movie “C.R.A.Z.Y.”, a coming-of-age comedy from 2005 about a gay French-Canadian. Vallée made his name with “C.R.A.Z.Y.” and it spurred his move to Hollywood, where he created well-received films such as “Dallas Buyers Club” and “Wild.”

Vallée’s unusual and rather audacious approach to mourning in “Demolition” has given us a movie that operates on manifestly intelligent foundations. However, the otherness and daring he is aiming for seem beyond his capacity to realize, and the film lacks lucidity.

Most previous films dealing with the subject focused on the difficulties of coping with mourning and underscored the various stages that, we are told, need to be gone through to achieve acceptance of one’s loss. But “Demolition” is about a man who does not want to mourn, or is unable to do so. The only way he can cope with what happened to him is by demolishing everything around him.

The protagonist of Vallée’s film, which was written by Bryan Sipe, is Davis Mitchell (Jake Gyllenhaal), a banker in an investment firm that is managed by Phil (Chris Cooper), the father of Mitchell’s wife, Julia (Heather Lind). At first, as Davis reveals in a voice-over narration, Phil couldn’t stand his son-in-law because he comes from a lower class than his own family. But he hired him anyway in an act of extreme nepotism. In the film’s opening scene, in which Davis and Julia are in their car with Julia driving, she complains to her husband that he still hasn’t fixed their leaking refrigerator. Suddenly, in a moment of cinematic shock, their car is blindsided. Julia is killed in the accident, while Davis emerges unscathed.

This image released by Fox Searchlight shows Jake Gyllenhaal in a scene from 'Demolition.'
Fox Searchlight via AP

A desire to destroy

Davis’ duty is to take part in the mourning rites of Julia’s family, but he doesn’t know how. He justifies his indifference by noting that he hasn’t expressed emotion for many years, did not really know his late wife – who continues to crop up in the film like a kind of ghost – and did not love her. His emotional lacuna is dramatized when, immediately after the hospital pronounces Julia dead, what really disturbs him is the fact that a vending machine, which is next to the room in which bloodstains from the physicians’ attempt to save his wife are still visible, refuses to dispense the candy he wants, even though he inserted the right amount of money. He vents his frustration at the machine’s betrayal in a long letter to the customer service department of the company responsible for the device. In his letter of complaint he also describes the tragedy that befell him and his inability to respond as he is expected to.

His letter arrives at the desk of Karen Moreno (Naomi Watts), a single mother with a problematic adolescent son, Chris (Judah Lewis). So moved is she by Davis’ words that, in an act of unexpected behavior, she calls him at two in the morning. A relationship develops among Davis, Karen and Chris, though it is more intense between Davis and Chris (who in an excellent scene probes Davis to find out if he’s gay) than between Davis and Karen (the film refrains from concocting an affair between the two). Mother and son become for Davis a sounding board, upon which he can express his frustrations and emotional lacks without embarrassment or fear.

The desire to destroy, which characterizes Davis’ behavior following his wife’s death, is conveyed in the film by means of symbolism that connects with the disquiet and destruction residing in his psyche. To some extent, it is actually his father-in-law who sets this force in motion by advising Davis to deconstruct his life and reassemble it without Julia. But the advice goes well beyond the realm of psychology to which it ostensibly belongs. Davis resigns from his job, destroys the electrical appliances in his house and finally destroys the house itself, amid a sense of ecstasy that attests increasingly to the emptiness dominating his inner self.

These events and developments do generate curiosity in the viewer. But unfortunately, Davis does not coalesce into a character of coherent heft during the entire course of the film. The script and the direction try to make him a character who possesses a comic dimension – not the kind of comedy that evokes laughter, but which aims to subvert the traditional cinematic portrayal of mourning. However, the result, Gyllenhaal’s skillful performance notwithstanding, is not sufficiently stable. The void that characterizes Davis creates a vacuum in the film that is not adequately filled, and the film’s attempt to provide its protagonist with therapy looks constrained and facile.

Overall, this is not a trivial work in terms of what it is reaching for and its audacity, but ultimately it is also not a satisfying work. It moves in too many directions and veers into realms that are not always relevant to the matter at hand, in an unsuccessful attempt to cover up the emptiness that looms at its center. Emptiness and a vacuum can be an appropriate image for mourning and the attempt to cope with it; but the way the creators of “Demolition” go about it, the cover is cracked and the film’s statements, even when they stir interest, are lame.