You can disassemble a clock, split it up into its individual spindles and gears and understand all the mechanisms that make it tick. Deconstructing our lives, finding the faults that make us run deficiently, isn’t quite so simple. Jean-Marc Vallée’s absurdist comedy, Demolition, is about a grieving widower, Davis Mitchell (Jake Gyllenhaal), who becomes obsessed with dismantling machines and memories.
When his father-in-law tells him that “If you want to fix something, you have to take it apart,” Davis takes the metaphor literally. A coffee machine that his wife purchased before she died, the squeaky bathroom stall door at his suffocating one-percenter job and the entire structure of his luxurious house are all victims of his “deconstructo-mania.” Numbed by his cold, corporate world and the remnants of an unsatisfying marriage, Davis’ demolishing eventually turns inwards, introspecting the memories of his wife, searching for a warm relationship he barely remembers. In the interim, he stocks a vending machine company’s customer service worker (Naomi Watts), who is lonely and having troubles with her angst-ridden son.
Davis also starts to notice the nuances of his surroundings, like an uprooted tree, moths that might have eaten a piece of his heart and a station wagon that follows him — all of which have some kind of figurative meaning. At one point, he says in a voiceover that “everything has become a metaphor.”
It’s all very on-the-nose and all very symbolic, but Vallée’s film never disguises its metaphors as profundity. There is an awareness, a sense of the figurative meanings as Davis’ coping mechanism, an expression of his scattershot perception, not a filmmaker’s hackneyed attempt of being deep. Surrounded by metaphorical settings, characters and street signs, everything has so much significance, so much potential to express the inner pain Davis hides behind his stoic face. Yet, somehow, it never comes through. At times it’s easy to misinterpret Davis’ attempts to find meaning as Vallée’s. The film’s coda, a montage of kitschy images and simple, metaphorical payoffs, is more complex than the prima facie expression. It’s Davis’ cheesy attempt to resolve his own story, to create an arc from the symbols he has established. The distance is important.
Demolition’s entire environment is subjective. Diagetic sounds, which aren’t coming from inside Davis’ head, feel as much like daydreamed thoughts as his narration. Davis is actively morphing his realities into conscious symbols. It’s a means of trying to comprehend the inexplicable, to come to grips with the causal determinants of his unsatisfying life. The financial company for which he works is in the business of selling stocks that are only a series of meaningless numbers — as translucent as his house’s reflective glass exterior, as empty as his destroyed marriage and as hollow as his shattered memories. For nearly the entire film, we are immersed in Davis’ fractured head-space.
The disassociative cuts are a wrecking ball to continuity editing. Flashbacks, which are only brief glimmers of half-faded memories, are used like lapses of consciousness. As Davis is destroying all the shiny surfaces in his home, Vallée is splintering his psyche into shards that reflect his fractured soul. Shadowy reflections, which bounce off the glass in boardrooms, mirrors and cold, upper-class houses, are a reoccurring motif, a reminder that Davis is as ghostly as his deceased wife.
Unfortunately, when you put Demolition back together, reassembling its subtext into a coherent whole, some of the subplots don’t entirely fit. Davis’ relationship with a sexually confused tween and reoccurring images of post-9/11 anxieties seem disjointed — thematic pieces that feel like unnecessary extras. Some of the supporting characters, particularly the customer service rep’s overbearing boyfriend and a douchy scholarship winner that plays a big role close to the climax, feel more like dramatic contrivances than believable characters.
In a film full of artifice and absurdist comedy, Gyllenhaal grounds this grand folly, finding human pain in a character that could have been off-putting and insufferable. The way he hides his emotions while displaying them under his numb expression, the manner in which he crafts an ambivalent character that is always readable, is quite remarkable. After his subtle work in Enemy, Nightcrawler, Prisoners, Zodiac and now Demolition, certainly he is among our best working actors.
After making prestige pictures like Wild, Dallas Buyers Club and The Young Victoria, Vallée has returned with a more flavorful film. Demolition is a plate of food made up of soiled ingredients, relying heavily on flashbacks, sledge-hammered metaphors, simplistic exposition and a potentially cliched after-a-car-crash narrative. Cooked under chef Vallée and his sous-chef Gyllenhaal’s hands, somehow Demolition comes together as a good meal, a sweet and salty concoction that is both tragic and funny. This is a metaphor; you can’t actually eat the film. It does, however, leave you with a belly full of satisfying cinema.