Vallée’s newest meditation on grief could finally mean Oscar for Gyllenhaal
How do we process sudden loss? Is there a right or wrong way to grieve, and how can we keep grief from overwhelming us? These are the weighty questions director Jean-Marc Vallée continues to contemplate in his somewhat uneven but emotionally arresting new picture Demolition. While not as strong as either Wild or Dallas Buyers Club, Vallée’s previous two films that explored death and grief, Demolition nonetheless is worth recommending based both on its raw and unique way of depicting the grieving process, and also on the strength of Jake Gyllenhaal’s exceptional performance as a man left shell-shocked by the unexpected death of his wife.
As the picture opens, investment banker Davis (Gyllenhaal) and his wife Julia (Heather Lind), a special-needs teacher, are driving from their suburban home into Manhattan. While she drives, he’s finishing a business call with his father-in-law (Chris Cooper, always worth watching), who also happens to be his boss. As Davis hangs up, Julia idly reminds him that the refrigerator needs fixing, and he responds mindlessly, only half listening, seeming bored and slightly annoyed. It’s a scene no doubt typical of millions of other car rides shared by couples in terms of its utter banality, but this particular one is suddenly and terrifyingly interrupted when Davis and Julia are brutally sideswiped by another car. Davis ends up fine, but Julia, whose side of the car was hit, doesn’t survive. Just like that, she’s gone, and Davis, who, we soon learn, was somewhat ambivalent about his marriage, is thrown into a tailspin as he tries both to cope with his loss and reconcile his feelings for his wife.
Written by Bryan Sipe, a relatively unknown screenwriter, in his first collaboration with Vallée, Demolition effectively employs a series of letters Davis writes to a vending machine company as the story’s framing device. Frustrated when, at the hospital after the crash, vending machine peanut M&Ms fail to release, Davis fires off a letter to the vending company, demanding a refund, and also pouring out his soul about everything that’s transpired in his life and marriage.
What Davis doesn’t know is that the vending machine company is a tiny, single-owner business in Scarsdale; his letter is received and read by Karen (Naomi Watts), who is the entire customer service department as well as the company owner’s girlfriend. Karen is appropriately intrigued and worried by the tone of the initial letter and those that follow it, and, as the rest of the movie unfolds, we see Karen and Davis develop a friendship and bond that ultimately help Davis as he struggles to work through his grief.
And therein lies the ultimate strength of the picture: its portrayal of grief is so startlingly accurate and exquisitely and painfully rendered that anyone who has been through a wrenching loss will immediately recognize and empathize with Davis’s confusion and numbness. The way that Vallée inserts flashes of memories in the middle of otherwise straightforward exposition scenes is masterful. We see Davis walking through crowds, talking to co-workers, eating, or watching TV, and, in the next split second, jarringly, we are inside a memory that Davis has of Julia – at their wedding, or arguing, or maybe laughing. When a loss consumes you, you often spend weeks going through your day in a daze; everything around you becomes just background noise to the devastation and ache in your head and heart. Vallée’s deft depiction of this universally experienced but rarely visually conveyed phenomenon is stunningly powerful.
And this performance may bring Gyllenhaal the Oscar he’s deserved ever since Brokeback Mountain and 2014’s terrific Nightcrawler (for which, in this humble critic’s opinion, he absolutely should have been nominated). His performance here, as a man becoming increasingly unhinged as he flounders personally and professionally, is rich, nuanced, and always affecting and engrossing. As Davis slowly moves from the stupor of disbelief over Julia’s death to finally being able to analyze the reasons for his initial lack of emotion, we see the full range of the human experience encompassed in one brilliant performance.
Much of Davis’s emotional awakening comes thanks to Karen, yes, but also to her son, Chris (Judah Lewis, excellent), who, as Karen says, “is 15, but looks 12 and acts 21.” Chris, a confused teenager who is a bit lost himself, forms a bond with Davis that serves them both well, as both are looking for a connection neither realizes he needs until it happens.
The only drawback to the film, then — and which I think is a minor quibble, given the intensity and the depth of the rest of the picture — is that this sort of redemption-through-connection trope isn’t exactly fresh, and, in some parts, feels cliché almost to the point of sappy (consider yourself warned about the ending). Some of Sipe’s lines are real eye-rollers (“Repairing the human heart is like fixing an automobile.” Come on!), but, again, I’m going to forgive Sipe and Vallée a few of their heavy-handed metaphors (you’ll begin to see why the picture is called Demolition about a quarter of the way in), because the entire cast, especially Gyllenhaal, treats the material with an authenticity that is never short of riveting. Indeed, the emotional core of the film — both in terms of its representation of loss and of marriage — is so searingly honest and so remarkably captured that you’ll leave the film not just emotionally spent, but also buoyed by the notion that all of us have within us the capacity to be truly present to each other when we are at our very lowest.
Demolition opens today at Bay Area theaters.