I had never heard of Demolition when I sat down to watch it, such is the thrill of the ODEON Screen Unseen, and I enjoyed it – I thought it was wonderfully executed and very thought provoking, as poignant as it was funny. Something else that struck me, though, was the film’s similarities (both plot-wise and thematically) to American Beauty, right down to casting Chris Cooper as the stalwart father with a secret. While Demolition is not as good as that film, and is unlikely to live on quite as that film has, it is a good watch.
The films kicks off with an investment banker, Davis (Jake Gyllenhaal), and his wife being the victims of a car crash – Davis survives, but his wife tragically dies. He begins to write a series of confessional letters to a vending machine company, which catch the attention of a customer service rep, Karen (Naomi Watts) – she phones him, and the two form an unlikely connection. Karen is moved by his honesty, and Davis finds someone to lend a sympathetic ear. As his friendship with Karen and her son grows, he starts to rethink his priorities and find the strength he needs to rebuild his life, realising he needs to tear at all part before he can truly make sense of it.
Quirky was the first word that leapt to mind when I thought of how to describe this film. The viewer never knows what is coming next, and the film pulls some oddball scenes out of the bag (after quite a touching conversation, we then had a scene with a handgun that had the whole audience laughing). The premise is a touch mawkish, and the film had the potential to be so too, but it manages to avoid this in no small part due to Gyllenhaal’s strong performance as the lead. Here, he pretty much does what he’s best at – a quirky outsider – and his Davis is a likeable presence, a man searching for himself and helping change the lives of those around him.
It would be unfair, though, to just single out Gyllenhaal – he heads a stellar cast, all of whom work wonders here. Cooper is predictably good as Davis’ father-in-law and boss Phil, trying to cope with the loss of his child and dealing with the changes in Davis’ behaviour. As Gyllenhaal rethinks his life, Phil is the more conventional emotional centre of the movie. Watts plays it understatedly and is wonderfully authentic, but the highlight is Judah Lewis as her teenage son, Chris. He is trying to figure himself out as David is, and their relationship is one of the best aspects of the film.
Although I feel it may not quite have been the point of the film, it lacks an ending and any particular resolution for some of the characters. This may have been the intention – this is a slice of life, and is therefore treated as such – but I got the impression that this was more because the creative team behind the film weren’t quite sure how to get to any kind of cathartic conclusion with the pieces they had lain. As such, Davis’ ending doesn’t quite feel earned and his arc doesn’t feel completed – the enjoyment here is in the set-up, so thank goodness most of the movie is that.
Although quirky, the film also exercises a degree of subtlety that means there are bound to be viewers who will hate it. I heard one guy complaining on the way out of the cinema, saying there was no way you could real sorry for Davis as you saw little of his relationship with his wife – this guy, I think, missed the point. As a modern reworking of American Beauty, it partially succeeds, but as a touching grief drama aiming to get you thinking about what is truly important in life, I think it excels.
Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal (Davis), Naomi Watts (Karen), Chris Cooper (Phil), Judah Lewis (Chris), C.J. Wilson (Carl), Heather Lind (Julia)
Running Time: 101 Mins