Demolition: A Complex Film That Made Some Simple Mistakes

Demolition takes a unique approach towards a common storyline and further cements Jake Gyllenhaal in the top echelon of actors, but it takes a few turns that may alienate some viewers. For one, it insults our intelligence without being a genius itself.


Directed by Jean-Marc Valee, Demolition follows finance worker Davis (Gyllenhaal) in the aftermath of his wife’s death, as he tries to make sense of the world and who he is. Starring alongside Jake G are Chris Cooper as his bereaved father-in-law (and boss), and Naomi Watts as Karen, a mother whom Davis seeks a connection with.

On the surface, this plot sounds cliché but Davis is no ordinary character. Almost immediately, we are puzzled by this man and how he acts. His way of venting is to write letters to a vending machine company. As the film moves on, many people will actively dislike the character and the film as a result. The film also ponders some interesting ideas through him, but again does it in a way that will annoy a certain number of filmgoers. However, if you stick with Demolition, it will pay off in quite an emotional way and will invoke some deep-ish contemplation.

Both the major strengths and weaknesses of this film come from the writing and directing. To the strengths first. There is a noticeable quirkiness to method the film uses to move through the narrative. The small injections of humour work every time and don’t detract from the film’s heavier content. Obviously grief is a major theme and the film actually does a brilliant job at peering into this, the different way that people can deal with it. Initially, we don’t know how to react to Davis’s attitude with anything other than dislike. He shuts down emotionally, admits he probably didn’t love his wife, nor really know who she was. Of course, this invites anger and encourages the opinion that the film is trivialising grief as Davis seems more concerned with his own personal journey than his wife’s memory. However, it is apparent she has had a profound effect on him, and Vallee does a nice job of balancing all the pieces of the puzzle as we head toward the finale. Artful and carefully chosen flashbacks are interspersed with Davis’s physical and mental flux.

The metaphors and ideas in the film are interesting and resonant but nothing ground-breaking which brings us to the weaknesses. Demolition acts as if we can’t figure anything out on our own. The best films are understood without needing to explain themselves. With Demolition, we can see the whole blueprint and yet it still feels the need to point it out to us.

Most critics have taken aim at one particular line of dialogue which states: “Everything has become a metaphor”. Anyone with even one operating brain cell could clearly see the metaphors the film was crafting, so to have a character actually tell us this was ridiculous and offensive.

Another problem is that the film didn’t follow through on one major aspect of it’s story. A major motivation for some of Davis’ actions is about taking things apart to see how they work, and then putting them back together. The film sets up this idea but uses it to simply smash things, and put nothing back together. Many things are broken, but nothing is fixed or understood. Yes, perhaps it helps Davis eventually but once more it’s something that will annoy the audience.

The acting in Demolition is standout. All three main performers are fantastic and the relationship Davis builds with Karen’s son Chris (played by Judah Lewis) is funny and touching. Lewis’ performance is incredibly natural. Gyllenhaal is unfailingly magnetic and the film would have suffered much more without him in the lead. The end of the film goes a long way to repairing some of the earlier gripes too, as we get a slightly more conventional set of emotions at work.

Ultimately, Demolition sways between brilliant and very wobbly throughout, and certainly won’t please everyone. This is very much reflected in the films Rotten Tomatoes score. However, those who do connect with the themes and the unique tone of the film, will find it rewarding, and somewhat satisfying by the conclusion.

Have you seen Demolition? What did you think of it?