By Reed Canaan
Immediately after his wife dies, Davis Mitchell (Jake Gyllenhaal) doesn’t feel anything. He goes to buy peanut M&Ms from the vending machine in the Intensive Care Unit. His candy gets stuck, which prompts him to write a series of letters detailing the circumstances of his claim (and his wife’s death) to the vending machine company. The recipient is a customer service representative named Karen Moreno (Naomi Watts) who proceeds to call Davis at two in the morning to ask if he needs to talk. So begins the series of socially inappropriate moments, which constitutes “Demolition,” now playing at the Aquarius Theatre in Palo Alto.
Davis is shockingly emotionless, bordering on sociopathic, in the wake of his wife’s death in a car crash. In fact, Davis’ character is initially reminiscent of Christian Bale’s Patrick Bateman in “American Psycho,” an emotionless New York investment banker moving through the city unnoticed. There are even echoes of Bateman in Davis Mitchell’s strict adherence to his routine. He returns to work almost immediately after his wife’s death, unnerving his coworkers and boss, who also happens to be his father-in-law.
Then Davis finds his coping mechanism: taking things apart. The leaky refrigerator and squeaky bathroom stall door are quickly decomposed and never reassembled. In his pursuit of things to destroy, Davis even pays a work crew to let him help demolish a house. He parades around in a collared shirt and pants from the army surplus store. His life is crumbling, and he’s indifferent toward it. Even the camera movements seem matter-of-fact, remaining deliberate and slow even when Davis is in the middle of frantically destroying his house.
Davis begins to befriend Karen from customer service, and it seems that “Demolition” will turn into just another, albeit pretty dark, romance flick. However, the relationship between Davis and Karen’s angsty teenage son, Chris (Judah Lewis), is actually the center the film. Chris quickly identifies Davis’ blunt honesty, which earns his respect. Jake Gyllenhaal is convincingly detached from the people and things in his life, but delivers the right amount of matter-of-fact humor to convince the audience of his humanity and permit them to laugh at his downward spiral. As he creates new relationships, his humanity slowly returns.
The plot is certainly offbeat, and some of the dark jokes won’t appeal to everyone. “Demolition” tries hard (too hard?) to emphasize its quirky indie charm. Karen is a pothead and Chris is suspended from school for a graphic presentation on the war in Afghanistan. All the characters have deep, glaring flaws.
However, “Demolition” succeeds in being surprisingly heartwarming for a movie about a man whose wife’s death didn’t impact him. It sneaks in some touching moments, and by allowing Davis to actually have a character arc, it avoids just being a purely cynical exploration of grief. The film itself is not nearly as apathetic as its main character purports to be.
Contact Reed Canaan at rcanaan ‘at’ stanford.edu.