Jean-Marc Vallée is a filmmaker who tends to direct obvious emotional material by underplaying the overstatements and overplaying the understatements. This tendency can really sink a movie, trapping interesting performances, like Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyer’s Club, in a production that’s both too much and not enough in every moment. It takes a great talent with the right material to transcend that approach. (Look no further than what Reese Witherspoon did in Wild.) But this tendency of Vallée’s really works for his latest, Demolition, a story about a character whose life changes so quickly and profoundly that everything about him is off balance. He overreacts to small things – a squeaking door, a faulty vending machine – and finds the biggest problem he’s facing – the sudden death of his wife – hard to react to at all. He’s numb and oversensitive simultaneously, a perfect fit for Vallée’s too much and not enough approach.
As scripted by Bryan Sipe (The Choice) the film is a character study about a man (Jake Gyllenhaal) who doesn’t know what his character is. In the wake of a devastating car accident that viscerally and artfully gets things off on an upset note, he feels overwhelming grief that turns into gnawing emptiness. He just simply doesn’t know how to process his difficult emotions. It wasn’t a happy marriage, but it was what he knew. He can’t acclimatize to a life without his wife (Heather Lind), especially carrying the guilt he feels for doubting if he actually loved her. Worse still, her wealthy father (Chris Cooper) is his boss at the investment firm he suddenly finds hollow and meaningless. He skips work and wanders around, losing weight, skipping shaves, and taking apart annoyances – a leaky pipe, a glitchy computer – with the tools and precision he lacks in dissecting his raw, complicated feelings. He suddenly sees the emptiness of his comfortable life and is at a total loss as to how to go about filling it in with meaning.
Gyllenhaal sells this shell-shocked depression with wet-eyed hangdog blankness, yearning for connection and struggling to find release for his pain. (It’s the internalized opposite of his scary surface striving in Nightcrawler.) Maybe, he thinks, the only solution is more pain, smashing apart his belongings until they draw blood. He’s clearly in a bad place, lashing out with reckless and otherwise odd behavior when he can manage to rouse himself from a depressive daze. Idiosyncratic and moody, textured with fine grain and soft lighting, the film layers in flashes of memories as if to manifest the rattled headspace of its protagonist, explaining his obsessive behaviors and rootless drive to make a change or a connection while maintaining the trauma’s essential unknowable qualities. He alienates his wife’s family, his colleagues, and everyone else he’s known, simply because he know longer knows if the person he is is the person he wants to be.
One outgrowth of this erratic breakdown is unexpected friendship. Remember that faulty vending machine I mentioned he encounters? It’s in the hospital where his wife died, and it ate his money mere minutes after he received the bad news. He sends a letter to the vending company explaining the whole situation. Then he sends three or four more. It’s enough to get the sad, kind-hearted customer service representative (Naomi Watts, radiating empathy) to call him up and ask if he’s okay. This becomes not a romance, but an intimate exchange of sympathy. They lean on each other, becoming fast, close friends. She invites him into her life where he feels comfortable just hanging around, even sparking a big-brotherly relationship with her troubled teen son (newcomer Judah Lewis in a casually terrific performance as a sensitive troublemaker). This could be unbelievable, but the cast sells it. They all portray a desire for a low-key understanding person to hang out with, an unassuming vulnerable tenderness, a fragility beneath playacted toughness. It’s sweetly, warmly developed.
The film’s back half is loaded up with developments, sudden swerves into dramatic complications that weigh an already glum movie down. It’s manipulative, but not entirely unearned. The whole thing works under a melancholic existential panic, with people trying their best to look at the world in a way that makes sense. At one point Gyllenhaal sees an uprooted tree and muses, “everything’s a metaphor.” It’s both a too-obvious statement of the movie’s heavy hand and an acknowledgement of a man casting about for anything to help make sense of an all-encompassing tragic change in his life. It’d make a tidy double feature with Wild, two movies about lost souls setting their own terms for recovery and hoping against hope that a big gesture will accomplish just that. Demolition doesn’t know if anyone can easily launch themselves out of a bad emotional state, but is moving in its assertion that, when you’re at your lowest point, even fleeting kindness can help push you in the right direction.