Sydney Film Festival Review: Demolition (MA15+) (USA, 2015)

Following on from his recent slew of American indie movies, Jake Gyllenhaal attempts his best to command the screen in what can only be described as the standout aspect in the labourious study of grief that is, Demolition.

Having celebrated recent acclaim with titles such as Dallas Buyers Club and Wild, Jean-Marc Vallée’s Demolition sees Jake Gyllenhaal star as successful investment banker Davis Mitchell, who is left to deal with the sudden loss of his wife after a tragic car accident. Despite the continuing efforts of his father-in-law (portrayed by the ever-brilliant Chris Cooper), Davis continues to slide down the slippery slope of depression and woe, alienating himself from the world and ultimately loosing grip on reality. Before hitting rock bottom however, Davis forms an unlikely connection with a customer service representative (Naomi Watts) and her son (Judah Lewis), leaving him with not just the ability to tame his grief, but ultimately, a unique outlook on life.

From the above premise alone, Demolition would appear to allow both Jean-Marc Vallée, and the actors under his guise, a thematically vast playground of emotions to utilize within the presented character-driven narrative. This, in turn, would theoretically enable the production of a tragedy-infused drama that perfectly balances the required running parallels of ethos and pathos. Instead Demolition is so disabled by its own high expectations that the myriad of issues which arise because of it are irredeemable and frustrating to witness as they unfold.

The most evident issue that plagues the film is the dull and ultimately “lost” sense of direction illustrated throughout. Though different in their own right, it’s hard not to retrospectively compare Jean-Marc Vallée’s previous two works to this when they were both so highly praised and awarded for achieving the exact the opposite of what is being demonstrated here. Though the film would, as a whole, be best described as a drama, its attempts to insert elements of black comedy throughout are laudable, yet also totally uncomfortable. The abrupt change of pace and direction within the first 20 minutes of the film is a prime example of the awkwardness which not only makes Demolition difficult to watch, but also feels atypical coming from such a high-calibre director.

Unfortunately, the film never recovers from its initial missteps, leaving the audience (and arguably Jean-Marc Vallée) in a constant state of deliberation as they try to determine what exactly the characters are feeling and whether it even matters.

Arguably, these sorts of films, in which a man has trouble expressing and dealing with his emotions, are slowly becoming an overdone trope in the film industry, leaving many a director pondering on how exactly to visualize such a theme in a way that it could be considered an original representation. While Jean-Marc Vallée’s attempts at envisioning his character’s plights are commendable at best, the end result still feels clunky and stiff. This could perhaps be forgiven if it were his debut feature, but unfortunately, it isn’t. It really is a shame considering the talent and illustration of his capabilities that have previously been on display in his more accomplished works.

Strong praise however, should be directed towards the actors, and in particular Jake Gyllenhaal, for their diligent application of the emotionally wounded characters they endure throughout the film’s entirety. Both Chris Cooper and Naomi Watts perform their roles delicately and with the expected high degree of skill and fluency that many have come to commend. Chris Cooper’s portrayal in particular is somewhat reminiscent of his incredibly tense performance in American Beauty, assisting in furthering the emotional credibility of Demolition’s supporting cast. Judah Lewis additionally deserves a notable mention for his raw and un-apologetic debut portrayal of a boy facing more than the average teenager’s struggles.

Unsurprisingly though, Jake Gyllenhaal once again proves himself to be the standout aspect in a mediocre film. Lacking no expertise in his portrayal of a broken man, Gyllenhaal brings an intensity to the table that is both a pleasure and a pain to witness. While the film’s direction is often inconsistent, Gyllenhaal’s performance is an absolute constant, with his character’s emotional and physical development creating a perfect arc that encapsulates all the stages of loss, grief, and rehabilitation down to a tee.

As literal and yet, metaphorical as the title comes, Demolition is in essence, about destruction. Destruction of a marriage, destruction of a family, and ultimately, destruction of one’s self. These themes are heavily intertwined throughout the film’s core structure and as such, play a pivotal role in not only guiding the characters’ emotional struggles, but also establishing the required atmosphere through the proper direction of black comedy and tragedy. However, it becomes quite discernible early on in the film that neither of these defining factors have the capacity to reach their full potential and in turn, fully satisfy the audience. Unless you are an avid fan of Jake Gyllenhaal’s acting prowess, Demolition is in all honesty, an immense  disappointment.

Review Score: TWO  STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Demolition screened at the Sydney Film Festival. It hits Australian screens on the 14th July.


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