Demolition review: Jake Gyllenhaal’s streak of success cannot be broken
Director - Jean-Marc Vallée
Cast - Jake Gyllenhaal, Naomi Watts, Chris Cooper
Rating - 4/5
Why must movies be hopeful? Why must they uplift? Why must they make promises they can only temporarily keep? And why do we fall for them, every time?
The act of coming to terms with loss, the act of grieving, is a funny one. It cannot be judged. There is no wrong way to grieve, just as there is no wrong way to breath. It’s been the source of many great works – songs, books, and yes, movies. Some shattered souls compose poetry, some discover hidden talents. The bravest jump off bridges, not always with a bungee rope tethering them to life. In Demolition, Jake Gyllenhaal’s character Davis discovers that he is a writer.
The opening scene begins with a mundane phone call, and ends with a car crash, a car crash that leaves Davis without a scratch and his wife, dead. Gyllenhaal couldn’t have planned this, but he has now starred in two films back to back that are about a husband coming to terms with his wife’s death.
Jean-Marc Vallée, one of three Quebecoise directors who are some of the best working right now, is too familiar with these characters. He takes them, broken as they are, and attempts to rebuild them in his films. He sends them, sometimes on a tragic, often times a profound, and this time, a bittersweet journey of self discovery. In Dallas Buyers Club it was a self destructive cowboy, in Wild it was a woman in the middle of an existential crisis. In Demolition, it’s a man who is alone in the world and has been for as far back as he can remember.
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He begins writing letters – not emails, but real letters. And not to his friends, because – and I’m thinking really hard right now - he doesn’t seem to have any. He writes, instead, to a complete stranger, a customer care representative who looks a lot like Naomi Watts and lies to herself about not being a pothead by calling it ‘cannabis’. Like Ben Stiller from Greenberg, he writes. And his letters bring Karen Moreno, Naomi Watts’ blond who doesn’t look as Hispanic as her name suggests, to tears. And just like The Lunchbox, they have conversations.
Do you remember Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close? You probably don’t. Honestly, it would’ve been strange if you did. It was a film that was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar a few years ago. Like Demolition, it also made an attempt, however unsuccessful, to address the pain of loss, in New York, with a similarly pitched story. And there was a very real chance that Demolition ended up being as grating. But it isn’t. It’s like a Dave Eggers novel, funny, sad, ironic, and pretty.
It is a movie about writing, and the catharsis of the act of coming up with words and stringing them together so they mean something. And Davis finds that he is damn good at it. Karen, despite being hesitant at first – and who wouldn’t, for all she knows, he could quite possibly be a deranged lunatic – responds. She responds to both Davis and his letters. Which makes Demolition – and I don’t know if this is a term – an epistolary film.
Like the best films about a character helping another to cope with loss, it’s never really about one of them, it’s about them both. Like the brilliant The End of the Tour from last year, about the transformative 3 days the journalist David Lipsky spent with the writer David Foster Wallace, Demolition too, is about two characters discovering that they need each other to overcome an unexpectedly large hurdle. And very wisely, it never becomes romantic. Even though when the two finally meet – and this is in no way a spoiler – it’s a lot like the first time Joel and Clementine met in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, it’s never romantic. They’re just two people, victims of 21st century loneliness. In fact, it’s the best film about this very modern ailment since Steve McQueen’s Shame. There is always someone else on the other side of the line and Demolition has the insight to introduce her to us.
Jean-Marc Vallée, like his fellow Canadian geniuses Denis Villeneuve and Xavier Dolan, cannot be stopped. His command over this story, written by Bryan Sipe, is what other directors must pray for. The film shifts tones on almost a scene to scene basis, and it’s easy to overlook how quickly a director can lose track of these tonal shifts. But Vallée never puts a foot out of line. There isn’t a single shot that feels out of place. Trust me, I looked.
Jean-Marc Vallée’s other gift is the David O Russell-like ability to extract great performances out of his cast. Jake Gyllenhaal is the most consistently brilliant American star working right now. The fact that he has only been nominated for an Oscar once is a crime. Chris Cooper, as always, is a daunting screen presence. He has found a quiet niche for himself over the last few years. From Adaptation to August: Osage County to The Company Men, it’s rare that you forget a Chris Cooper performance. Naomi Watts, at this point in her career, has become what Kate Winslet has been battling for for the last decade.
It’s a sad truth that Demolition will probably be forgotten. Movies like this usually are. But not by the few who saw it. Because it’s hopeful, it uplifts and it makes promises. Who cares if it can keep them?
Watch the trailer here