Jean-Marc Vallée’s Demolition presents an interesting experiment: What if you told a story of tragedy but withheld all the tenderness and emotion from it, so that you were left — at least until the very end — with just literal and figurative wreckage, disconnected fragments seeking to be put back together? Believe it or not, that idea might be what saves Demolition, which is otherwise a facile story of a man alienated from his life. But it can be hard to watch, too, and not always in a good way.
The film opens with investment banker Davis Mitchell (Jake Gyllenhaal) bantering along with his wife, Julia (Heather Lind), when a stranger's car smashes into theirs. Waking up in a hospital waiting room, Davis learns that Julia has died. He’s shaken but cold; the most emotional he gets is when a vending machine fails to give him his candy bar. Later that night, he writes a complaint letter — the first of many — to the vending company. In it, he starts to go into detail about his life and the state of his mind, confessing that he never really understood his wife, that he doesn’t deserve his wealth and station. His empty house and lack of grieving visitors seem to bear this out. We see him at a funeral reception for Julia, practicing crying in front of a mirror. We see him going back to work the next day, oblivious to the grief he’s supposed to be feeling.
“Repairing the human heart is like repairing an automobile. Just examine everything, then you can put it all back together,” Davis is told early on. And so he starts to take apart the things in his life that aren’t working properly: a leaking fridge, a creaky bathroom stall door, a malfunctioning light fixture. Pretty soon, he’s graduated to bigger projects: Seeing a work crew demolishing a house, he asks to join in, and he soon relishes taking giant hammers to walls. “None of it is real,” he had said about the money he handled as a banker. “I can’t hold any of it in my hands.” Well, now he has something material to handle and break apart. And we know it’s all a substitute for his own dysfunctional life. (As he himself confesses, “Suddenly, everything has become a metaphor.”)
There’s somehow always a single mother involved in these stories of a man's self-discovery, so into Davis’ life comes Karen Moreno (Naomi Watts), the customer-service rep for the vending-machine company. Touched by his letters, she calls him one night at 2 a.m. She refuses to meet him in person at first, but he soon finds her, and a nonsexual friendship is struck. (Remember, this is a movie about a man who can’t feel anything). She has a troubled young teenage son, Chris (Judah Lewis), who paints his fingernails black, bangs away at a drum set and toys around with a gun belonging to her erstwhile tough-guy boyfriend Carl (C.J. Wilson).
Demolition is a strange movie, partly by design. The screenplay (by Bryan Sipe) is filled with clichés and contrivances: a working-class regular on Davis’ morning commute to whom he confesses that he didn’t love his wife? Check. A bonding moment over a classic rock song? Check. A scene in which Davis takes a hammer to his own house? Check. A doctor’s visit where he points to the area around his heart and says he’s numb there? Check. Since the film has purposefully set aside all the emotional connective tissue that might make sense of these elements, it all kind of hangs there, familiar but purposeless.
But Gyllenhaal and Watts’ yin-yang performances help things along. He nails Davis’ boyish curiosity, the quiet, wide-eyed uncertainty of someone discovering the world for the first time. (If they ever remake the alien-visitor romance Starman, he should be the first actor they call.) She expertly mixes vulnerability with wariness; we sense that Karen longs to connect with this strange man but has seen enough in her life to know that she doesn’t want to get hurt. Chris Cooper, meanwhile, is surprisingly touching in a thankless part, as Davis’ father-in-law and boss — a sure-of-himself, stick-up-his-ass corporate overlord. In fact, for much of the film, he’s the only character who gets to show genuine feeling.
But back to that experiment, the idea of withholding almost all tenderness until the film's very end. It’s not random: It mirrors Davis’ journey. He has to break down his life and rebuild it in order to feel something, and it’s hard not to sense that Vallée and Sipe are doing the same thing with their film, presenting pieces in search of a whole. And while these fragments don’t all quite come together, Demolition does close out with a series of emotional bursts that have an undeniable cumulative power and retroactively justify its hesitant, disconnected quality. Amazingly, if awkwardly, the experiment works.