Saturday, 24 December 2016

Movie Review: Demolition (2016)



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Since my brain is still re-building itself from my last review, I’m just going to jump right into this one. This is Demolition.


The plot: Investment banker Davis (Jake Gyllenhaal) has just lost his wife in a car accident. Not knowing how to deal with his life anymore, or even how he was doing it before the accident, he proceeds to vent about his life in a series of letters to a vending machine company after a bad purchase in the hospital waiting room. His letters get picked up by the company’s customer service rep Karen (Naomi Watts), and as they connect, Davis starts to put the pieces of his life back together.

Well, this is a deep breath of fresh air; considering our respective leads have been in, shall we say, less than ideal productions this year, it’s nice seeing them not only together under a competent director but also giving some good performances. Gyllenhaal’s depiction of grief and general dissatisfaction with life does come across as rather sociopathic, but then again, the entire film is about him coming to terms with his emotions so that portrayal works in the film’s favour. Watts, simply out of virtue of not playing a sporadically hateful and spiteful person, is far more watchable here as the sympathetic stoner. Chris Cooper echoes similar dealing-with-death sentiments as Gyllenhaal, only far more vitriolic, and Judah Lewis as Karen’s son reads like the typical precocious kid typically found in most indie flicks, but he manages to work with his dialogue-defined character confines without it feeling too forced.

Director Jean-Marc Vallée’s recent efforts have shown some real talent on his part, particularly with last year’s outstanding work Wild. Writer Bryan Sipe’s most recent effort was in the latest Nicholas Sparks adaptation The Choice, and it’s really saying something when that is easily the worst of that ilk. Knowing how my expectations were last time I looked at a film featuring a French-Canadian director teaming up with the writer of one of the worst films of 2016, the writing here honestly fits right in with Vallée’s ethos as a storyteller. Much like Dallas Buyers Club and Wild, this is a character piece that is thematically more interested in the actions of the characters rather than strictly being about the events that happen to them. As a result, the narrative can be a bit aimless in how it just seems to waft through the events of the film without any defined connective tissue between them. Of course, again like Vallée’s works, it works mainly because of that reason and how it lets the audience stick closer to the main character.

The main theme of the film, and the origin for its title, is Davis’ life being summarily wrecked with the death of his wife… and he isn’t entirely sure why. The man has been on auto-pilot for most of his life, and now he has to take stock of what he has and what he thought he had, both in terms of material goods as well as the people that were in his life. From here, we get into some Fight Club-esque marching against the evils of consumerism, only the intent behind it is markedly different. Fight Club was all about an innate and primal need to destroy the conventions of society out of suppressed rage; here, it’s more out of a general want to do so in order bring one’s own life into perspective.

One of the more arthouse retorts made whenever people complain about films not having a satisfying ending is usually something along the lines of “Life doesn’t offer satisfying endings, so why should fiction that is meant to reflect it?” Now, while there are a lot of problems with this reasoning, not the least of which being the main reason why we indulge in fiction in the first place, there are some cases where that thought pattern rings true. This is honestly one of them. Because of the hazy narrative structure, having a bona fide conclusion to events would be out of place anyway, and it would be unfair to the main character. After taking the confines of his life apart and examining the pieces left over, he doesn’t really come to any form of resolution… which makes sense. After all, the complexities of grief are typically shown as being settled as soon as a replacement for the dead can be found; here, the film is willing to admit that while he may have broken down everything into pieces, he may not be able to put them back together again. He’s making progress but, much like in real life, it isn’t all wrapped in a single climactic moment. We get catharsis, sure, but it’s far from conclusive.

All in all, this is good in a way that I find myself unable to easily quantify. It’s not nearly as good as the rest of Vallée’s recent filmography, but between the well-defined characters, solid acting and writing that knows enough about its character dimensions to make up for the lack of narrative dimension, it still holds up as a decent viewing experience. I’m ranking it higher than Hell Or High Water, as the writing here honestly has a bit more weight to it overall. Please don’t take too much stock in the guy who wrote The Choice outdoing Taylor Sheridan as a writer. However, as an overall experience, it falls short of the economical but fascinatingly well-structured The Shallows.

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