At one point in the new film Demolition, Davis (Jake Gyllenhaal) is asked why he married his wife Julia (Heather Lind). He replies: “Because it was easy.”
That would be a good answer for why most every aspect of Davis life has turned out the way it has. He works as a suit in a Manhattan financial firm and clearly hates his job. But he takes a certain perverse anarchic pleasure in revealing how much money he handles. His house is a soulless, glass, steel and white plaster modernist monstrosity. His father-in-law Phil (Chris Cooper) runs the financial firm, and seems to have groomed Davis for the company mainly because that’s what you do with your son-in-law. Julia tells Davis he doesn’t pay attention enough.
If classic literature and religious tradition fingered desire-based sin as the big problem in human nature, Davis is sort of the inverse: He doesn’t seem inclined to cheat on Julia; that would require passion. He isn’t working at a financial firm because he’s greedy; he just couldn’t muster the effort to object or think of an alternative.
All this information is communicated in an early voice-over and montage just after Julia is killed in a car wreck. Davis moves through the funeral services like a zombie: he practices how to cry in a mirror, and initially cannot imagine any response except to immediately return to work. The only thing he gives a damn about is a vending machine at the hospital that got stuck and didn’t give him the peanut M&Ms he ordered. So he pours his heart and soul into a letter to the company’s customer service division.
Then he writes another letter a few days later. And another. It’s a small company, and Karen (Naomi Watts) is one of a few customer service personal. Moved by his letters, she eventually calls. Their burgeoning friendship clearly contains an aspect of sexual attraction and adventure. But the main thing is that these two people are profoundly unhappy with the course their life has taken, and it’s been a while since they discovered someone else in the same boat. Karen is dissatisfied with the relationship she’s in with her boss (CJ Wilson), but otherwise her life involves the kind of messiness Davis is discovering he yearns for. She smokes too much pot, and she’s impulsive enough to make her initial call to Davis in the middle of the night. Her son Chris (Judah Lewis) is an asshole, like most teenagers. But he’s also very intelligent, dresses and carries himself like he wants to be the next Mick Jagger, and he’s probably gay.
None of these performances require the actors to stray far from their standard types, but everyone performs it well enough. Sipe’s screenplay isn’t especially insightful, but it doesn’t stretch for more than it can achieve, and it comes in at a punchy one hour and forty minutes. The direction by Jean-Marc Vallée is competent without ever really wowing. The director’s best flourishes are the odd edits the arrive in moments of crisis, and Julia’s ghostly appearances in mirrors and hallways and memories throughout the proceedings, which all give Demolition the feel of a sad supernatural thriller at times.
The fun stuff is the little asides in Davis’ transformation as he falls in with Karen and Chris. His style of dress becomes more sloppy; he adopts Chris’ love of music, swinging from the rafters of the garage as the boy plays the drums, dancing while wearing headphones down the sidewalk during the morning commute. Davis takes some advice from Phil – “you have to take the human heart apart to see how it works” – a bit too literally, and starts dismantling everything in sight: his leaky refrigerator, a malfunctioning light fixture, a broken bathroom stall door, his own office computer. He joins a team of construction workers tearing down a house just for the hell of it. And his ambitions rise from there.
Demolition is a bit too much like its protagonist: emotionally cool and lackadaisical, more thrilled by the sheer newness of its world than with digging below the surface. But Vallée and Sipes do pull off an admirable and subtle judiciousness in handling Davis and Phil’s opposing worlds. It’s hard not to sympathize with Phil’s anger over Davis’ erratic behavior, and his total failure to be conscientious of other’s feelings and expectations. The filmmakers don’t shy away from allowing Davis to be a dick. But we also get glimpses into the hollowness Davis is rebelling against: Phil sets up a scholarship fund in Julia’s name to reward young people of “exceptional talent and quality of character.” Then at the award ceremony, one of the students Phil picks asks Karen if he can feel up her breasts.
It’s an open question how much Julia was a part of her father’s world. You get the sense that the thing that’s died in Davis is the very thing Julia married him for, and was trying to resurrect. Very late in the game, Davis discovers he may have had access to parts of his wife the other members of her family never did, even as she hid secrets from him. Did Davis love Julia? Demolition never figures that out; it’s more about Davis’ learning to miss her. But there’s a humaneness in the film’s conclusion that the value of what they shared does not rise or fall on a straight answer.