If for no other reason than its use in popular culture, audiences by now are familiar with the seven stages of grief. But what happens when you can’t seem to muster up any sort of emotion? That’s the conundrum found at the center of director Jean-Marc Vallée’s new drama, Demolition, a surprisingly funny drama about a man who can’t seem to connect to the emotions he’s expecting.
Davis Mitchell (Jake Gyllenhaal) lives a life that’s…well, structured. He wakes up at 5 a.m. each morning so he can work out before heading into Manhattan, where he works as an investment banker. Everything in his life appears clean and organized, from his very modern glass house to his shaved-everywhere body. But when his wife Julia (Heather Lind) dies in a car accident that Davis walks away from without a scratch, he finds that he can’t seem to grieve her death, at least in any traditional way. Instead, he becomes a shell of a man, taken with disassembling everything around him.
Davis conveys his thought processes through a series of letters he sends to a vending company, which initially starts out as a complaint about a machine at the hospital that took his money while he was waiting to hear about Julia’s condition. These lengthy, handwritten letters serve as his outlet to deal with his shock at his own response to his life and Julia’s death. What he can’t expect, though, is a response – which is what he gets from Karen (Naomi Watts), the company’s sole customer service representative.
Karen reaches out after Davis sends a fourth letter, because she finds herself sympathetic to his situation. Her own life is a mess, with her boyfriend being her boss, her low-end job stressing her to the point of regularly smoking pot, and her son Chris (Judah Lewis) frequently getting into trouble at school. With Davis, she senses a kindred spirit, which is why she quickly allows Davis to crash in the spare bedroom as he pushes to get away from his routine life.
Jake Gyllenhaal has been on a roll for the past few years, turning in one stellar performance after another. Even though it doesn’t require the physical transformation of Nightcrawler or Southpaw (outside of the aforementioned body shaving, which…saddens me), Demolition may be his toughest role of the past few years. There’s a smoothness to his performance that makes his eventual emotional turns so smooth and gradual that it takes a minute to see where he’s going. His own way of expressing grief seems believable, when in the hands of pretty much any other actor, some of Davis’ actions would be portrayed as over the top.
He’s matched scene-for-scene by, strangely, Lewis – not his more established co-stars, Watts and Chris Cooper (as Julia’s father/Davis’ boss). Watts and Cooper are both fine for the most part, but they aren’t exactly missed when they’re not on screen. But Lewis more than makes up for that. He starts out as a bit of a stereotypical abrasive teen, but it’s clear something else is going on with him. There’s a point where Chris comes out to Davis in the middle of a store that is among the more emotionally honest coming out scenes I’ve seen in a film, and its success is due to both Gyllenhaal and Lewis.
Vallée continues his strong work as a director who can get terrific performances out of his actors, as he demonstrated with Dallas Buyers Club and Wild. Even though it’s fairly obvious that Davis will eventually find a way to work through the grief he’s bottled up, Vallée and Gyllenhaal find a way to make it compelling and relatable. That’s no small feat.