Pitched somewhere between one of Cameron Crowe’s cine-journeys of self-discovery and a hyper-sensory exploration of white-collar anhedonia, Demolition is, more often than not, structured around a series of letters. Shortly after his wife, Julia (Heather Lind), dies in a car accident, Davis Mitchell (Jake Gyllenhaal) attempts to procure a bag of Peanut M&Ms from a hospital vending machine. But the bag gets stuck, and Davis begins a series of missives to the company responsible for maintaining the machine. “I think you deserve the whole story,” Davis says, using the incident as an excuse to unburden himself of years of anxieties and repressed emotions.
Davis presents himself as a totem of white male privilege, having spent years commuting from a modernist glass-and-concrete house in White Plains to the Manhattan investment bank where he works for his father-in-law. His only problems were that he didn’t love his wife, or his life. His letters draw the interest of Karen Moreno (Naomi Watts), the vending machine company’s lone customer service rep, at which point the film becomes a lot of things: a stalker comedy, a chaste romance, and a thorough-going act of wish-fulfillment, all littered with behavioral tics out of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl playbook.
It may be the first movie in which a character stops shaving his chest in order to express his independence.
Nearly every supporting character in Demolition is, like Davis, in the midst of an identity crisis. Karen is an idling, pot-smoking single mother, and her son, Chris (Judah Lewis), is exploring androgyny and realizing his homosexuality. Bryan Sipes’s overwrought screenplay does efficient work sketching the dynamics of their lower-middle-class family milieu, but it doesn’t pay any similar favors to Davis, an archetypal Man Without Feelings who suddenly and decisively becomes a Man of Action. Davis dismantles a refrigerator and a bathroom door, eliciting concerned looks from his coworkers, and then quits his job in order to wreck bigger and more expensive structures. “Everything has become a metaphor,” Davis says at one point, long before purchasing the bulldozer he’ll drive through his marital home, or the bulletproof vest he’ll wear while allowing a teenage boy to fire a gun at him.
Demolition takes its literalism to such an extreme that, at points, it’s difficult to determine whether or not the film is operating with a semblance of irony. What’s the purpose of all of Davis’s destruction? If he’s meant to stand in as an avatar for a certain breed of entitled finance hack, his self-excavation yields no identifiable emotional awakening, nor does it seem rooted in any particular moral searchings. His hysterical acts of erasure are further tempered by Gyllenhaal’s amusing but impenetrable performance, another in his retinue of obsessive and emotionally impaired protagonists. Davis’s inability to adapt to everyday social graces is crucial to Demolition’s offbeat sensibility, adding credence to its unpredictability and lending a certain screwball charm to his relationship with Karen, but it nullifies any attempt to make him a sympathetic character.
Director Jean-Marc Vallée seems keen to this problem, and does what he can to help crack his protagonist open. The film’s tricky epistolary structure, sustained after Davis’s letters should have ceased, is accompanied by an elaborate style of montage, which slips gracefully from the present into the character’s memories of his marriage. Visual cues like wardrobe and grooming patterns serve as continuous barometers of Davis’s well-being; Demolition may be the first movie in which a character stops shaving his chest in order to express his independence. Unfortunately, Davis does a lot more than that, taking Heart’s “Crazy on You” as a personal anthem and dancing his way through the streets of Manhattan before he prompts a few disastrously off-key final plot twists. Vallée’s film itself comes to feel like the victim of an identity crisis: Demolition is too self-aware and strange to become the mawkish, class-blind fantasy it sometimes appears to be, but it’s too busy breaking stuff to develop a more persuasive message.