Before ‘Demolition’ made it’s 2nd screening at the 40th annual Toronto International Film Festival, Director Jean-Marc Vallee (‘Wild,’ ‘Dallas Buyers’ Club’) took the stage to declare his latest project (slated to open wide next year) “the most rock and roll film I’ve ever made.” Without a doubt the head banging score supports his claim, but what the Montreal native was alluding to was more in line with the film’s title. For ‘Demolition’ is obsessed with not only breaking away from but destroying society’s expectations as well as twisting conventional filmmaking norms – even if that means tearing away too much.
Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Davis Mitchell, a wealthy investment broker who losses his wife Julia (Heather Lind) following a fatal car crash. To the growing displeasure of his father-in-law and boss, Phil (Chris Cooper), Davis shows no sadness and feels even less towards his late wife despite knowing he should. Davis soon becomes obsessed with uncovering the reasoning behind his lack of sorrow, and turns to the inner workings of everything around him to seek an answer. During one of his earliest OCD phases involving a troublesome vending machine, he meets Karen (Naomi Watts) who is equally as curious of the world around her. Together, along with her flamboyantly rebellious son Chris (a breakout Judah Lewis), the trio rebuilds Davis from the ground up.
Seemingly casted by his showing as the witty social oddity of Lou from last year’s ‘Nightcrawler,’ Gyllenhaal is expected to carry more comedy with less character investment. Unlike his recent projects, the 34-year old actor is akin to more of a normal man going through a phase rather than carrying an eccentric mentality throughout. Perhaps if the script focused more on the detailed side to Davis’ demolitions rather than purely the destructive aspect, less comedy as a result would have provided Gyllenhaal more to play with. A disappointment to Gyllenhaal fans, however, ‘Demolition’ is not, entirely that is –whether it’s dancing through the streets of New York or swinging a sledgehammer into a slab of drywall, the star brings a satisfying physical commitment. Nearly stealing the show out from under the top-billed, including an aging Naomi Watts, Judah Lewis is given the terrific part of a sexually confused rebel in Chris. An expected quiver is present in many of his longer speeches, yet Lewis tackles a demanding role for any age with confidence – exploiting his angst in facial expressions and moving thoroughly with a feminine strut.
Placing an importance on origin and purpose, it’s no surprise youth, or lack of, is a running theme through the characters. While Davis is dancing and finding the juvenile joy in destruction, Chris is busy smoking, finding his sexuality, and teaching classmates about the U.S. presence in Afghanistan – a fiery demonstration that effectively gets him expelled: dramatic and funny. In fact, drama and comedy are constantly at war throughout ‘Demolition,’ attempting a balance both when the only genuine combination is found in multiple shock cuts that add a deeper layer of engagement, faster pace, and dark humor. Transitioning between the two opposites isn’t always to that effect, illustrated to me first hand by an audience that would unsurely laugh at plenty of serious scenes. The film did, however, successfully attribute both issues (sexuality and class) with ample content via the comedic bonding between an intelligent Davis and the youthful angst of Chris – highlighted by a hilarious scene involving a gun and a bullet-proof vest.
Neither inherently comedic nor as captivating as ‘Nightcrawler,’ with less depth and suspense as ‘Enemy,’ ‘Demolition’ doesn’t hold up to Gyllenhaal’s previous efforts. Regardless, even in playing a more traditional character, the actor fully committed to the role over the film’s mere 30-day shoot. The drama is weakened by the comedy and the comedy is weakened by the drama, and the whole tone is made more confusing as a result, but in a handful of scenes the terrific cast is able to click with each other as well as the competing tones. Strengthened by an energetic pace and score in addition to engaging superimposed reflections in a series of frames, ‘Demolition,’ with it’s thought-provoking script and committed cast still manages to craft one of the most intricate insights into the inner insurgency of contemporary purpose and strife.
‘Demolition’ receives a 3.5/5