Grief hits everybody in different ways, and to make it worse, there’s never a clear way to go about handling it. It’s a shitty, messy feeling that forces people to rebuild their lives after a tragic event. Yet the theme of grief has lent itself to many great films that explored it in unique and powerful ways, such as in Three Colors: Blue and Antichrist. Jean-Marc Vallée tries his hand at the delicate subject in Demolition, and the results are mostly good, except for the fact that most of the characters in the movie are assholes.
As with the case of his previous two films, Dallas Buyers Club and Wild, Vallée is drawn to characters that are going through difficult times, yet they are also people who you probably wouldn’t want to be friends with. The thing with Demolition is it’s not just the main character, it’s almost everyone.
After the sudden death of his wife in a tragic car accident, Davis (played by a fully committed Jake Gyllenhaal) begins to take his life apart to put it back together again. He might be easy to root for at first, what with the tragedy and all, but it soon becomes clear that he wasn’t actually a good husband. After writing some complaint letters to a vending machine company in which he spills his unhappiness, he meets Karen (Naomi Watts) another dysfunctional human being who smokes pot far too frequently for a single mother, is in an unhappy relationship, and has some very obvious issues that are never really dug into.
As their friendship blossoms, the film’s smart script shines through with only a few hiccups. Gyllenhaal is at his comedic best here, balancing that sense of emptiness with a touch of wild humor. His delivery of some lines is spot on, reflecting his wide range as an actor. Yet he still grows to be a little obnoxious. Aside from growing friendly with Karen, he also has to deal with his father-in-law, played by typically serious Chris Cooper, who is also a huge jerk. On top of that, he finds a kindred spirt in the rambunctious, delinquent son of Karen, Chris (Judah Lewis in his debut performance.) The two make for a fun duo, but Chris is also a bit of a mess as he is hardly fifteen, gets suspended from school, has no apparent respect for his mother, and also struggles with finding his sexual identity.
The result of so many dysfunctional, unlikable characters is a misplaced sense of empathy as it’s hard to find much of a connection with any of them. Yes, these people are going through some tough shit, but I personally wouldn’t want to be friends with the majority of the people in this movie.
I might be railing on the characters a lot, but Demolition is actually quite good. It’s funny and smart, and never tries to be overtly sad when it totally has the opportunity to be. If Vallee were to make movies with likable people, he might find greater success. The performances across the board are good, but there doesn’t appear to be much of a connection between Gyllenhaal and Watts. Their early phone calls show a decent chemistry, but once they’re together in person, their energies are completely off.
Poignant and funny, honest but not brutal, Demolition is a solid effort from Vallée. Like his previous works, Vallée traps himself with complex characters and shows him at their worst and expects audiences to find empathy for them. While these characters aren’t always the best, the film is entertaining and sturdy enough to make them almost bearable. While it certainly isn’t his best effort, Vallée continues to show he’s great at working with realistic characters going through dark times.