Director Jean-Marc Vallee is literally in familiar territory with his “Demolition,” as the French-Canadian filmmaker again returns to the Toronto International Film Festival, home to last year’s Reese Witherspoon-starring “Wild,” to debut his latest cinematic excursion into the unique emotional excess that so often defines stories about grief. Starring Jake Gyllenhaal as the shell-shocked Davis Mitchell, “Demolition” employs many of the same techniques that made “Wild” so striking (and so special), particularly Vallee’s own snappy and smart editing, along with an ability to extract impressive and not at all showy performances from his actors.
But while “Wild” built up its emotional currency to a satisfying — and relatively small — conclusion, “Demolition” spends its goodwill early on, eventually giving itself over to cheap-feeling twists and a problematic final act.
Vallee’s first use of a tired cinematic trick — a shocking car crash, one the cinephile crowd has seen ad nauseum in recent years, from “Whiplash” to “Meet Joe Black” — is swift, but it’s also immediately forgivable. As Davis, Gyllenhaal is driven by routine and repetition, and the unexpected loss of his wife Julia (Heather Lind, recently seen in Noah Baumbach’s “Mistress America,” though Vallee claimed in a pre-screening introduction to have discovered the New York actress) is the exact sort of shove he needs to re-evaluate his life. (It is, of course, unfortunate that Julia is used entirely as a device to explore Davis’ inner workings, but she’s hardly the only character in the film doomed to such a part.) The funny thing is, though, that Julia’s death doesn’t immediately force Davis to change things up — instead, it only mutes him further.
Well, for a time. While Davis doesn’t display the “normal” hallmarks of grief, his behavior is erratic, and when he starts fixating on writing long-form letters to a local vending machine company that is responsible for the loss of his hard-earned dollars (Peanut M&Ms in the hospital, they got stuck on the machine’s loops), it seems clear that he’s misdirecting his emotions. Bryan Sipe’s script effectively toys with this idea for the film’s first half, as Davis’ letters are suddenly answered by customer service rep Karen (Naomi Watts, proving that Davis’ bad luck really isn’t that deep), inspiring him to seek out other “wrong” things to fix. Mostly by tearing them apart.
Gyllenhaal is the first one to call out the film’s surprisingly not totally heavy-handed symbolism, as Davis comments early on after Julia’s death that suddenly everything he encounters is a metaphor for something else. Davis’ desire to dismantle things is also influenced by his father-in-law/boss Phil (Chris Cooper), who encourages his strange son-in-law to tear things down to start over again. It’s not likely that Phil meant the refrigerator or a squeaky bathroom stall or a high-priced coffeemaker, but Davis runs with the idea.
It’s Gyllenhaal’s charm that keeps “Demolition” ticking along as well as it does for as long as it does, as he whole-heartedly embraces Davis’ “thing” of being honest all the time (even Davis has the good sense to sneer at the claim that truth-telling is his calling card), mostly by way of amusingly off-kilter voiceovers and plain-faced statements that, while always true, are also keenly observational and almost painfully on the mark. In “Demolition,” the whole adage is true, it’s funny because it’s true.
As Davis falls apart — and he and Karen sort of fall together, though Sipe’s script keeps their bond pleasingly murky — he adopts a series of bizarre changes and habits, all in service to demolishing his entire life. Just as Davis becomes increasingly erratic in his actions, so too does the film, and its second half drifts so far away from reality and good sense that it threatens to lose its audience. Despite the unbelievably fast bond between Davis and Karen (the film could stand five more minutes of the two getting to know each other, even that would immeasurably assist in the leaps in emotion that take place as the pair are first getting familiar with each other), Karen is pushed aside in favor of her young son, Chris (Judah Lewis, who possesses a spark well worth watching), and he and Davis soon start setting off on their own destruction-heavy adventures.
Those adventures, ill-advised and seemingly engineered just to be strange, ultimately lead straight into a third act that relies on obvious twists and undercooked personality twitches to drive home the same point that has been repeated throughout the film’s runtime: You have to rip things down to start over again. When Gyllenhaal (who again turns in another wonderful and nuanced performance, continuing the pattern he set with other TIFF picks like “Nightcrawler” and “Enemy”) rips things down to the studs, there’s glory in the action, freshness and revitalization, but once Vallee tasks him with building everything back up, “Demolition” collapses under its own ambitious weight.
“Demolition” opens nationwide on April 8.