Jake Gyllenhaal is the kind of actor who only functions well in very particular roles, yet has excelled as an actor based more on good looks than any sort of artistic skill at his craft. If placed in a role like his lead in Nightcrawler, he can use his off-putting social ineptitude to bring life to a character that other actors would infuse with too much natural charisma. Demolition, on the other hand, feels like an attempt to inject that same sort of Gyllenhaal awkwardness into a story that isn’t well served by it, at least as presented on-screen.
Davis (Gyllenhaal) and his wife suffer a car accident in which the wife dies, leaving Davis to face his life alone. Trouble is, he seems to have spent the majority of his marriage merely existing, not feeling happiness or a sense of purpose during his wife’s lifetime. After a hospital vending machine refuses to give him his desired package of M&Ms, he writes a series of letters to the vending company’s customer service that vent his new feelings and give us brief insight into his bizarre thought processes. Meanwhile, he begins to dismantle the malfunctioning machines of his life, eventually graduating to full-on demolition of his and others’ property.
There’s a lot going on in this film, and that’s a big part of why it ultimately doesn’t work. There seem to be about four different premises for a film about a man dealing with grief buried within this story, yet none of them are fully realized. The self-destruction of all Davis’s material possessions is an excessively literal metaphor, but it’s one that could have worked if it had adequately explored Davis’s psyche. However, it competes for time with a love affair with the vending company’s customer service representative, bonding with said love interest’s rebellious gay son, and butting heads with his boss, who is also his dead wife’s father. None of these disparate elements gel to make a coherent picture of grief or a lack thereof, and this is clear in the film’s third act, a slapstick amalgam of cheap twists that pretend closure but feel hollow. The film didn’t earn its schmaltzy ending, so the supposed emotional gravity of it falls entirely flat.
This could have been mitigated somewhat were the performances any good, and this is where Gyllenhaal begins to feel like the wrong choice. His disaffected portrayal of a man who has everything material but nothing substantial could potentially work if he were given more opportunities to vocally sell it, but the film focuses on non-verbal cues to show us Davis’s inner turmoil, which just doesn’t work, either as written or through the vessel of Gyllenhaal. Chris Cooper as Davis’s father-in-law delivers a satisfying performance that energizes his one wispy plot thread, yet Naomi Watts delivers one of the flattest performances of her career, so her romantic scenes with Gyllenhaal feel like two robots awkwardly trying to fuck without having a working knowledge of sex. All of this is hacked up by some of the most needlessly frenetic editing in recent memory, which serves no purpose beyond faux artistry.
I’m not above admitting that there are moments of comedic levity in Demolition that actually work on a scene-by-scene basis, but they are greatly overshadowed by how the film fails to put them together in a way that communicates a solid character arc or even a compelling narrative. If the symbolism weren’t so purposeful and the narrative pay-offs so cheap, I would likely have thought the film fell apart in post-production, but as it stands I think we can squarely place blame on the shoulders of first-time screenwriter Bryan Sipe. Writing a first screenplay is hard enough without having to acclimate to the narrow acting talents of Jake Gyllenhaal; maybe his next attempt will come out better, with a more conventional actor at the helm.