Monday, April 11, 2016

Review: "Demolition" is a Great, Endearing Depiction of Grief

Scene from Demolition
Over the past three years, director Jean-Marc Vallee has pretty much made a career out of being presumable "Oscar bait." This is most prevalent in his problematic debut Dallas Buyers Club, which earned Matthew McConaughey a Best Actor award as well as a Best Picture nomination. While he hasn't quite hit that high since, his work definitely continues to veer off into far more interesting directions. His mixture of humanity and familiar yet earnest themes may not make for the most captivating dramas, but what he does so well is make dramas full of personality and life that compensate for their familiarity. While not his best, Demolition feels like the perfect embodiment of what he does so well, thanks in part to a great lead performance by the reliable Jake Gyllenhaal.

If judged on the first 20 minutes, one could easily mistake this film for About Schmidt, if told from a younger and wealthier perspective. Gyllenhaal plays a man who loses his wife in a car crash. Following his trip to the emergency room, he writes a vending machine company when he is unable to get a bag of M&M's out of it. Like the Jack Nicholson film, the conversation gets very personal real quick and leads the recipient (Naomi Watts) to sympathize with him in a way that eventually leads to romance. Add in his job at a company that makes $6 billion, the situation becomes murky as he begins to take the advice of his father-in-law (Chris Cooper) to tear apart his life to find what's wrong with it, which is does too literally as he dismantles a fridge and bathroom stall door. 

It is here that neurotic traces of Gyllenhaal's performance kick in as he spends more time with Watts and continues to dismantle everything in his life. For what it's worth, the film starts off on a very curious note, choosing to hide major details in ways that add to the philosophical mystery of grief. It is unsure why things happen. Is it all a metaphor? There's plenty to question as the story progresses from its puzzling first half into a more conventional second half. Much like in Wild, the presence of the deceased runs rampant and leaves an uneasiness in Gyllenhaal as he does mundane tasks, such as showering. There's a sense of absence in the film that works so well by adding glances of other characters in the corners of the screen, as if he's incapable of fully grasping it.

Demolition is a film about grieving that goes against the archetypes that have been common for most of entertainment's existence. The typical response to death is to mourn and take up creative pursuits. In this film, it's almost antithetical, as Gyllenhaal finds more catharsis in destruction, choosing to demolish his own house and hang out with a bisexual teenager who has questionable thoughts on current events. This isn't the first film to depict the instability of grief, but likely one of the few that's dedicated to understanding it as a healing process. Yes, it may strike more conservative types as excessive to see Gyllenhaal smash high-end TVs and rent a bulldozer for his own enjoyment. It may even seem baffling that he does half of the stuff that he does. However, Vallee's direction allows for Gyllenhaal's character to make sense in this destruction with Cooper serving as a great counterpart, as the more traditional quiet griever. 

What's possibly the best component of Demolition is that despite beginning with a tragic loss, the film proceeds to mix the dark themes with a sense of humanity. Even if the loss is lingering over every frame, the film manages to splice in humor and personality at every turn. Beyond the creative first act that doesn't quite carry over into the rest, the film manages to express a certain longing for acceptance and to find purpose in, well, anything. Yes, it does fall into corny territory a few times, but its emotional core inevitably wins out as the film manages to end with a powerful statement that shouldn't seem as reasonable as it does. Yes, Gyllenhaal is a little too destructive and privileged to be totally sympathetic, but his core journey is undeniable. For all of the film's flaws, it still manages to be a captivating journey that reflects what Vallee did so well with Wild

Overall, it seems unfortunate to see this film not doing so well critically or financially. With yet another great performance, Gyllenhaal remains one of the few underrated actors who can't catch a break come award season. Still, it is his ability to be both eccentric and insular that makes Demolition such a fascinating film, and one that reflects Vallee's overall gifts as a director. Yes, it may be a little saccharine and "Oscar bait" at times, but he's far from the worst offender of this silly class. If anything, there's a sense that he's passionate and tries to make even the most familiar story unique, and that's why even if this isn't his best work, it at least worthy of viewing for its rich subtext, enjoyable performances, and the sense of optimism in a person's lowest moment. It's a charming movie, and one that continues to fill me with hope that Vallee will be able to have a long and fruitful career. 

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