Davis (Jake Gyllenhaal) just lost his wife in a car crash, but he isn’t ready to mourn about it yet. First, he will have to demolish his entire life and build it anew before he is ready to see his relationship in a different light. Karen (Naomi Watts) and her little son help him get there.
Davis (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a bit stuck in his life. Every day has the same rhythm and his work doesn’t mean all that much to him, even though he pours all his time into it. He has a wife, the boss’s daughter, but only married her because it was “easy”. He doesn’t really listen to her stories, or to anyone’s stories. When his wife suddenly dies, both his work and his private life are turned upside down, but although everyone expects him to grieve about it, he surprisingly doesn’t feel all that much. Still, this is a push for him towards a personal crisis. Davis has to demolish, to dismember his entire life and build a new one before he can do anything else.
Gyllenhaal gives an amazing performance as the emotionally distant Davis. Everyone in his environment mourns about his wife’s death, but he cannot answer any of those emotions, and you see in his eyes how his attention slips away. But somewhere, deep inside, something is stirring and he blows off steam by writing a lengthy letter to the customer service of a candy machine, in which he doesn’t only complain, but also tells the whole story of losing his wife. This way he gets in touch with Karen Moreno (a really good role by Naomi Watts) of the customer service and starts a short relationship with her that is doomed from the start.
But actually, actually, and the film is not very explicit about it, the relationship between Karen and Davis is not the most important one of the movie. It is not an actual love story. It is more like a conduit. Director Jean-Marc Vallée doesn’t even show any intimacy between those two. Instead, Karen has a little son, Chris (Judah Lewis) who is struggling through puberty and is also looking for himself, and Davis joins him. Together they help each other and Gyllenhaal and Lewis have a great on-screen connection. For Jean-Marc Vallée this is the third film in a short time, and his previous films Dallas Buyers Club (2013) and Wild (2014) were also about people looking for themselves. Again he produces a very strong and touching psychological movie with a phenomenal script.
Man, those Quebecois directors are some of the best ones working in Hollywood today (see also Denis Villeneuve).
Demolition doesn’t explain anything clearly, but everything that happens needs an interpretation of Davis’ emotional state. Davis is annoyed about everything that doesn’t function properly and demolishes his computer and the toilet door at the office. In fact, he is acting out and wants to demolish himself. He even tells Karen: “Suddenly, everything is a metaphor. A fallen tree, that’s my life. Bad weather, I am the cold front coming in.” When Davis buys a hammer to destroy his house together with Chris, we can fill in why he does it.
The script is very strong with funny dialogues and beautiful or touching moments. In the rush of discovering your new self, Davis becomes a little loose, and we feel this sudden sense of freedom and redemption together with him. But that sudden freedom can also make you inconsiderate about the people who depended on you. He needs some shocks to return to normal life again, and to finally revisit the relationship with his lost wife.
This is an intelligent film that expertly explores the human emotions and personal growth, and it funny at the same time. High praise to Vallée for the directing and for Gyllenhaal and Watts for the acting.