Director Jean-Marc Vallée has once again proven his uncanny ability to make watchable films out of stories that sound like middlebrow drivel. Dallas Buyer’s Club was about a homophobic, AIDs-afflicted bullrider who meets a transvestite hustler and learns a valuable lesson (see also: a straight white savior narrative). In Wild, Reese Witherspoon plays a promiscuous intravenous drug user hiking the Pacific Crest trail in order to have cathartic moments and “walk myself back into the woman my mother thought I was.”
Those are elevator pitches that’d have me hopping off at the next floor (ding!), yet in both cases, I felt much differently once I was in the theater. Demolition is another non-groundbreaking, strangely enjoyable drama seemingly synthesized out of spare parts from previous indies. It’s essentially a mash-up of Hesher, About Schmidt, and Office Space, that doesn’t have much to say that those movies didn’t say already. And yet… I liked those movies, and I like this one.
Jake Gyllenhaal plays a bored finance dude who’s driving home with his beautiful wife (Heather Lind) one day, barely listening as she yap yap yaps about a leaky refrigerator. When all of a sudden, WHAM! Their car gets sideswiped and she dies. I always enjoy a good smash-cut-to-funeral, but instead there’s an intervening scene set in intensive care. Gyllenhaal’s character finds out his wife’s dead, and reacts by trying to buy some Peanut M&Ms from a vending machine. The bag ends up getting dingleberry’d on the end of the dispenser — talk about insult to injury! In the coming days, everyone expects his character to grieve, but he can’t, and the only way he can process his feelings is through a series of increasingly introspective letters to the vending machine company. The vending machine customer service lady becomes, in effect, his Ndugu, if you’ve seen About Schmidt.
His wife’s death, meanwhile, rather than making him sad, only serves to make him aware of all the things he’d been taking for granted. Squirrels in the park. Uprooted trees. People on the train. “Everything looks like a metaphor,” he writes to the vending machine lady. Suddenly, instead of stocks and bonds and the Fisher account, it’s taking things apart that inspires him. He dismantles refrigerators, ponders the contents of people’s luggage at the airport, and befriends a troubled teen. We get to live vicariously through his transformation into guy who lives in the moment and doesn’t care about the normal things (luckily, he is rich). His wife’s death functions as the hypnotist in Office Space.
Does this sound nauseating to you? I know it’d sound nauseating to me. And yet…
The one new-ish idea that Demolition brings to the table is that Gyllenhaal’s character isn’t numb, like your usual grieving protagonist (see: Garden State). At least, not exactly. Chris Rock used to have a bit about how you can either be married and bored or single and miserable. I’ve always extrapolated this a little bit to relationships, where there’s rarely a perfect balance of affection. One person is almost always a little bit bored (comfortable, taking for granted, possibly not fully in love), and the other person is almost always a little bit miserable (fully in love but needy, jealous, feeling taken for granted). Gyllenhaal’s character is the bored partner. Then his wife dies and he’s not sure how to feel. He starts to realize how many of his life choices had been dictated by simple inertia. Asked why he married his wife if he didn’t love her, he says “Because it was easy.”
Look, I’m not here to tell you to rush out and see another bored-white-guy-learns-to-live again narrative. See also: American Beauty. Also, once again, a lot of non-straight white male characters had to die or get maimed in order for the straight white male protagonist to learn a lesson. Problematic, PROBLEMATIC (*muzzled, shoved into windowless van by the Thinkpiece Police*).
Gyllenhaal’s character meets a troubled teen who loves classic rock and takes a field trip to Coney Island to meet a wise old man who sells pot when he’s not restoring antique carousels. These are things that could only happen in the mythical land of wonder porn, where everyone’s wealthy enough for dreamy field trips and the catharsis flows like wine. Somewhere, Imagine Dragons is playing.
But Vallée has a way of executing his semi-hacky story tropes with such clever, original imagery that I’ll go along with it. Jake Gyllenhaal tearing apart his modern art house is so striking and watchable that I don’t entirely care why he’s doing it. Like a lot of Demolition, it’s just a great image, and one that doesn’t require much unpacking. It also helps that it’s Jake Gyllenhaal doing it. His curious eyes and manic bro intensity are so perfect in this role — it might be the most Gyllenhaal role he’s ever played. And Demolition uses him opposite Chris Cooper, Naomi Watts… lots of actors I’d watch do just about anything. Vallée’s casting choices are so good that they have a way of redeeming his story choices.