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A Widower, A House, And A Plot Hammer That Hits A Little Hard

Jake Gyllenhaal plays a widower taking a destructive path through grief in <em>Demolition</em>.
Fox Searchlight
Jake Gyllenhaal plays a widower taking a destructive path through grief in <em>Demolition</em>.

Everyone grieves in their own way, the expression goes, and they shouldn't be judged for it. Yet an exception should be made of the grieving-by-metaphor that happens in Demolition, which finds a widower literally dismantling his empty, materialistic life, with sledgehammers and power tools, before figuratively picking up the pieces. At no point does this process seem organic, much as Jake Gyllenhaal tries to make a mystery out of this hollow soul and hint around the question of whether he truly loved his wife and the home they built together. Demolition is the rare film that's doomed by its central conceit: It starts in a hole and mostly keeps digging.

The opening minutes find Davis (Jake Gyllenhaal), a slick Wall Street investor, spending what will be his last minutes with his wife Julia (Heather Lind) before a car accident takes her life and spares his. At the hospital, Julia's father Phil (Chris Cooper), who also employs Davis at his firm, tearfully relays the news of his daughter's death, but Davis absorbs the loss without expression. With his emotions tucked away in some vault he cannot access, he instead focuses on the hospital vending machine that's failed to dispense a packet of peanut M&Ms. He writes down the name of the vending company. They'll be hearing from him soon.

And so the contrivances of Bryan Sipe's screenplay converge: Davis starts to take apart the bathroom stalls and light fixtures at the office and spreads the components of a $200 cappuccino maker on his garage floor. He also starts writing multi-page, handwritten letters to the vending company, filled with details about his personal life that he doesn't feel comfortable sharing with anyone else. At the receiving end of those letters is Karen (Naomi Watts), a single mother who's having problems keeping her rebellious son Chris (Judah Lewis) in check. Davis' eventual involvement in their lives has an oddly neutralizing effect on the teenager, who's awed to meet someone more reckless than he is.

Director Jean-Marc Vallée, hot off a couple of prestige hits in Dallas Buyers Club and Wild, recognizes the dreary nature of Davis' mirthless destruction, so he and Sipe undercut it with welcome moments of humor and absurdity. Davis' epistolary confessions too closely recall Jack Nicholson's letters to Ndugu in About Schmidt, but the film scores available laughs off the disconnect between its hero's curious behavior and what might be expected from a normal human being. Abandoning basic social norms may be pathological, but it's liberating, too, and Demolition is determined not to sink too deeply into the bog of Davis' ennui.

Yet sink it does, especially once revelations about the state of Davis and Julia's marriage come to light and he emerges from his stupor. Like the most facile sections of American Beauty —with which it shares much in common, including a tightly wound Chris Cooper — Demolition takes aim at the sterile trappings of bourgeois privilege, smashing them into splinters in order to access the real truth underneath. (That last part happens literally here.) The study in contrasts is not subtle: Davis commutes between his home, a modernist prison of steel and glass, and a high rise where he trades in numbers-based abstraction. He then meets a family whose lives, screwed-up as they are, are suffused with working-class earthiness.

Demolition ends in a flurry of shocking disclosures and cataclysmic events that all but nullify Davis' journey to that point. The entire film acts as a mechanism to arouse its hero and get him back in touch with his feelings, but the third act weakens the impact of his attempts to reexamine his life through methodical destruction. Davis isn't responsible for his rehabilitation so much as fate is. And fate, in a scenario this ruthlessly contrived, feels like the orderly, steel-and-glass structure Davis was trying to flee.

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