SXSW Review: DEMOLITION

Jake Gyllenhaal is brilliant in an incredibly honest film about grieving.

In Wild, director Jean-Marc Vallée tackled the nature of memory: how it shapes us, the quiet and surprising way it sneaks into our present through a half-phrase from a song, or a glimpse of color, a precise shade recalling to mind a past moment with perfect but fleeting clarity. It's an examination he continues in Demolition, again through the prism of grief. 

This time the one in mourning - although not if you ask him - is Jake Gyllenhaal's investment banker Davis Mitchell, who's just lost his wife in a brutal car accident. Davis is struck by his lack of feeling when he thinks of his wife - he isn't grieving the way we're taught we're meant to, and the strained relationship he had with his wife complicates her loss in a way that Davis doesn't seem quite ready to process. He takes the metaphorical advice of his father-in-law (Chris Cooper) quite literally, and begins taking apart his life with a sledge hammer, deconstructing the perfect home he shared in his less than perfect marriage.

The night of his wife's death, Davis purchases a bag of peanut M&Ms from the hospital waiting room vending machine, and the bag gets stuck in the mechanism, as has happened to all of us at some point in our lives. He begins writing long, personal confessions to the customer service office of the vending machine company, until an employee named Karen Moreno (Naomi Watts) responds in an unexpected way. Through his correspondence with Karen, and his burgeoning friendship with her iconoclastic teenage son, Davis works through a complex grief that doesn't look anything like the grief of Hallmark cards and lily arrangements.

Demolition is honest about grief: that it's unique to each of us, that it can be selfish and ugly, that it's at least as strong for those for whom our love is mixed with some measure of antipathy. Gyllenhaal is brilliant in this portrayal: the more Davis feels, the less he shows, and he alienates everyone from his old life with his unusual search for understanding. Cooper, who is Davis' boss as well as his father-in-law, feels especially betrayed by this new Davis, one who does not seem to feel the loss of Phil's daughter in the way that Phil thinks is fit. Watts is appealing as Karen, but the character is a bit of a cipher, a spinning top whose permanent state of alienation and loss matches Davis' circumstantial one. But her son Chris, played by Judah Lewis, is the only true counterpart for Davis, two men railing at a world in which they feel entirely singular, taking apart everything that rings of false symmetry and uniform perfection, so that their surroundings match the way they feel inside.

Demolition is a beautiful film, plain-spoken even in its metaphors, and it feels fundamentally true in a way that most films cannot. It's also surprisingly hilarious for a story about loss. Davis operates in a way that is unexpected and jarring, and his interactions are threaded with a funny absurdity. That's another way that Demolition is honest, because sometimes grief is funny in its illogicality, and sometimes it's beautiful, and sometimes it's dreadful. It's messy, and so is Demolition, but it's a lovely mess that I can't wait to revisit.

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