More than a decade ago I was working in a video store and came across a French-Canadian film with an interesting cover called C.R.A.Z.Y. Being a huge fan of the cinema out of Quebec, I picked up the film with no knowledge of what it was about. For the entire over two hour runtime I was enrapt in this beautifully crafted story and right there was introduced to the brilliance of filmmaker Jean-Marc Vallee, a director I would talk about to anyone who asked “Seen anything good lately?” It’s easy to say that that film could possibly be my favorite Canadian-made film ever. It’s poignant, beautifully inspirational and unforgettable, paving the way for Vallee to move into English language film.
His next project would be The Young Victoria, critically acclaimed, but not a film the resonated with me. After returning to his native language for one film in 2011, Vallee would hit the Oscar nominated big time with 2013’s Dallas Buyers Club, which would go home with three statues. While I really did like the movie, I felt like it didn’t really have the visual style from the director as it really could have been made by anyone. Vallee would again see nominations for his next film Wild, one that would go unrewarded. It was after this that we got wind of his new focus, a teaming with actor Jake Gyllenhaal.
In Demolition, Gyllenhaal plays Davis Mitchell, an extremely successful investment banker working in a firm for his father-in-law Phil (Chris Cooper). On the ride into work in the morning, Davis’s car is in a horrific accident, killing his wife Julia, who was driving. When he’s told that she has passed away, he doesn’t fly into any sort of rage, tears or denial but instead tries to buy a package of peanut M&Ms from the vending machine. These promptly get stuck in the machine, causing Davis to write a letter of complaint to the company, which, in turn, causes him to relate his entire story.
Davis is struggling with his emotions and not in the way that you would usually attribute to a newly widowed man. Closer to the reality of the situation, it’d probably be better to say that Davis struggles with his lack of emotion to the loss of his wife. In Davis’s prolonged numbness, he begins to realize how much of a stranger his wife felt to him and how much of his life was just going through the motions of what a life is supposed to be. When he is contacted by the vending company’s customer service rep Karen (Naomi Watts) in a very unorthodox way, Davis finds her as someone he can open up to as he starts to physically dismantle his former life to become someone who feels something again.
When it comes to Demolition, I’m certainly not numb like Davis at all, I loved this film through and through. Jean-Marc Vallee returns to the top of his game and delivers a film with a beautiful style to it rife with fantastically kinetic editing, astoundingly from a first time editor, in a final product that leaves you with a happy exhilaration. Even more surprising is the smart and funny script brimming with so much natural heart that it’s unbelievable that it came from the same pen that wrote the Nicholas Sparks lame fest The Choice that came out almost two months ago. The differences of ingenuity and cohesiveness between the two movies are night and day.
The other big draw to this film is Jake Gyllenhaal himself, who is probably one of the best actors working today. Just looking at his work since the year he was snubbed for a worthy Oscar nomination in one of that year’s best films, Nightcrawler, he’s really making all of the smart choices. Teaming with other French Canadian superstar Denis Villeneuve to make two of the best films in the last five years, Enemy and Prisoners, Gyllenhaal is an actor on a consistent rise to the top. Both his charming charisma and his impeccable and ever evolving acting chops make Davis Mitchell a character that you feel with all of your emotions, even if he can’t experience any for himself at first. Will this be a film that he sees some award love for? Probably not but he would if I had my say.
Adding to his onscreen presence is his work opposite Naomi Watts, an actress who always brings it, and the young actor who plays her troubled young son Chris played by Judah Lewis. This kid could be a future star as there is an element to this young actor that projects a comfortability beyond his years. The scenes between Davis and Chris don’t feel like a shoehorned and contrived piece for you to see that Davis has a softer, kid-friendly side. Instead they talk like two human beings both reacting and dealing with some deep personal crises in the hope that either counterpart can help facilitate some change. A lot of the time these subplots feel pandering and flat but the combination of these two actors and Vallee’s direction make it work.
Coming out of the Toronto International Film Festival last year, the opinion on Demolition was decidedly mixed causing me to have a little trepidation heading into my viewing. Now I’m left wondering what didn’t connect with those audiences because I felt so headlong in my emotional investment in the film and consider it a return to prominence in my list of important directors for Vallee. It’s a tough line for Hollywood films to make a clearly non glossy human emotion drama and Demolition does this with a panache that will leave a smile on your face throughout and give you some great belly laughs along the way. As I’ve said and constantly hammer home incessantly in this review, I love this movie and it’s a clear five out of five for me.