Posted by Joel Copling on April 7, 2016

There is something hollow at the center of Jean-Marc Vallee's "Demolition" that drags it backward from the potential of exploring grief following trauma. One would think that a film such as this, which tackles a protagonist clearly suffering some form of shock and maybe posttraumatic stress disorder, would live in the moments of silent introspection that develops character. Unfortunately, Bryan Sipe's screenplay won't shut up and let those moments do the emotional legwork necessary for the film to hit those notes. Instead, he tacks on a plot device that requires some sort of narration to be present, and of course, as per usual with narration, it dictates exposition rather than affording any depth.

When his wife (Heather Lind) dies in a car accident, the unraveling process begins for Davis (Jake Gyllenhaal), and this is some sorta unraveling. He doesn't grieve until the final scenes of the film, but that's not entirely surprising. This is a movie that captures well enough the denial stage following a grievous personal tragedy. That's where the odd device comes in. He has escaped the crash with barely a scratch on them and a dead wife, and all he wants is a package of peanut M&M candy. The machine does exactly the malfunction you are now picturing, and out of annoyance, Davis writes to the vending company that maintains it, morphing his simple complaint into a series of emotionally naked, minutely detailed, entirely unilluminating letters that also give us a sense of his personal history.

He has worried and helpful parents (played by Malachy Cleary and Debra Monk) whom we barely see, which seems an odd choice on Sipe's part. He has a father-in-law named Phil (Chris Cooper), at whose company he is an employee with an assistant and everything, and a mother-in-law named Margot (Polly Draper), whose glazed eyes and unbelieving expression at their daughter's funeral perhaps afford us the most significant emotional scope of the aftermath. His letters reach the customer service representative at the vending company, a woman named Karen (Naomi Watts), in whose life Davis becomes a semi-permanent fixture after phone calls, visits to her work, and a sort-of, kind-of paternal or elderly-fraternal relationship with her son Chris (Judah Lewis).

The better segments of the film regard Davis' relationship with his direct family, which is where the brunt of Gyllenhaal's solid performance is allowed to do its work (Cooper is also very effective as a father grieving in a different way for the loss of his only child). A series of relevations late into the film only seem to rub salt in the wound and introduce more suffering, but it's better than the subplot involving Davis' budding romance/whatever with Karen, who is also damaged for vague reasons that are never explored, and mentorship of Chris, whose own problems stem from a very obvious source that, here, is defined by stereotype. That "Demolition" focuses so heavily upon these two particular characters and an annoying narration gimmick means that what could have worked well as a drama about grief instead becomes a shell of what it should be.

Film Information

Jake Gyllenhaal (Davis), Naomi Watts (Karen), Chris Cooper (Phil), Judah Lewis (Chris), C.J. Wilson (Carl), Polly Draper (Margot), Malachy Cleary (Davis' Dad), Debra Monk (Davis' Mom), Heather Lind (Julia).

Directed by Jean-Marc Vallee and written by Bryan Sipe.

Rated R (language, sexual references, drug use, disturbing behavior).

100 minutes.

Released on April 8, 2016.