Is Jake Gyllenhaal becoming typecast? For an actor who possesses a versatile range, he frequently appears in similar roles: that of the vaguely autistic man with an obsessive personality so all-encompassing, his obsessions overshadow his personal and professional lives crumbling around him. In Demolition, his character is essentially the meeting point between his characters in Zodiac and Nightcrawler; he has become so detached from his personal life he has lost all feeling, whilst possessing a particular kind of obsession that threatens to endanger his own life.
The only problem is Demolition is not as interesting as either of the aforementioned movies, instead feeling more like a checklist of every North American indie film cliche that has manifested in the 21st century. It is one close-up shot of a character looking alienated whilst underwater away from making the more cynical members of the audience stand up and yell “Bingo!” What do I mean by this? Well, the narrative begins as a maudlin, Garden State-style drama about businessman Davis, disconnected from his emotions and struggling to reconnect in a time of sheer turbulence. His wife dies in a car crash whilst he remains in the passenger seat, unaffected. When at the hospital, he tries to gain catharsis by writing letters to the customer service department of a vending machine company, whose hospital machine gave him no M&M’s (in the most bizarre use of product placement this year).
Eventually, he gets a call back from the customer service representative; a mother in a “complicated relationship” played by Naomi Watts. This quirky relationship, where the dialogue is based entirely around non-sequiturs, at once feels like a diminishing return to Punch Drunk-Love, as well as unintentionally recalling the relationship between Brick and Kristen Wiig’s character in Anchorman 2, but with the laughs mined from their social dysfunction not presumably intentional. To further the Punch Drunk Love comparison, Gyllenhaal’s character has an obsession with destruction (or should I say… demolition?), to take things apart only to put them back together.
Finally, to put the cherry on top of the “quirky, Sundance-style indie drama” cake, Gyllenhaal becomes a mentor figure to Watts’ teenage son (newcomer Judah Lewis), a closeted gay kid who smokes like a chimney and dresses like the bastard love child of Jagger and Bolan. The only thing that stops this character from being the coolest thing in a film this year is that he doesn’t FEEL real – more like the invention of a screenwriter with a penchant for creating characters who will help the main, over-privileged white dude discover their inner sensitivity. He is a narrative construct, whose only purpose is to help the bland lead character develop a single iota of emotional depth. Gyllenhaal can easily excel at playing detached characters, but here the character is so detached he is practically sleepwalking through huge portions of the running time.
Director Jean-Marc Vallee’s two previous films, Dallas Buyers Club and Wild, came adorned with Academy Award nominations (and two wins!) for its central roles. It is safe to say this is a feat that will not be repeated with Demolition. The only thing of note here is how Vallee has perfected his visual style, a style defined by its very imperfection. From the abrupt cuts-to-black in Dallas Buyers Club, to the structural untidiness of Wild, it is clear he has an obsession with demolishing the standard narrative structure in mainstream cinema, whilst maintaining full coherency. He frequently uses sequences like a comedian would use non-sequiturs, adding nothing to the narrative yet showing full command of a particular brand of visual style, that subverts the expected visual form of a maudlin drama about male displacement.
Here, framed angles that show Gyllenhaal out of touch with society are manipulated in ways that, although they don’t detract from the overbearingly quirky and self-centred nature of the film, make for dazzling visual distractions. Irrelevant sequences that show an elementary school race in reverse and Gyllenhaal dancing like an uncaged orang-utan, to name two memorable examples, are used as a form of cinematic punctuation. Early in the film, in the worst sequence, Gyllenhaal laments that “everything in life is a metaphor”. The use of the aforementioned overbearing visual metaphors coinciding with events in his life are at least a visual signifier that redeem the film somewhat, by at least being stylistically attuned to the character’s inherent neuroses.
Demolition is the kind of film that has been made numerous times before, to the extent watching this will have no effect upon your life. A hymn to the fragility of an upper middle class male ego, it presents an emotional problem so detached from the reality and empathetic mindset of any rational viewer, it becomes a struggle to care even when it flirts with being entertaining.