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Non-Review Review: Demolition

This film was seen as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 2016.

Demolition is saturated by quirk.

Demolition is suffocated by quirk.

Jean-Marc Vallée’s tale of a recent widower starts off strong enough, focusing on how Davis Mitchell responds (or doesn’t respond) to the loss of his wife. Davis fixates on the little things, the unimportant things. Perhaps taking his wife’s suggestion that he fix the refrigerator to heart, Davis becomes fascinated with the idea of dismantling everything in his life. His fridge; his computer; the bathroom stall with the creaking door. “Everything is a metaphor,” he explains at one point, which is a somewhat blunt statement of purpose for the film.

There are warning signs in the first act, as Davis obsesses about the faulty vending machine in the intensive care unit where his wife died. He writes long-winded customer service letters requesting a refund and outlining his issue, providing the movie with a convenient framing device that might serve as exposition. Already, Demotion begins to creak like the door to that bathroom stall, skirting the line between quirky and trite. Sadly, it seems like nobody involved in production thought to take the film apart or try to fix the issue.

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Demolition actually works quite well for the first thirty minutes or so. It is just a little bit too aloof, deflecting its exploration of grief and trauma with a strained sense of humour and a knowing irony. Still, Vallée has assembled a solid cast. Chris Cooper provides solid support as a father grieving the loss of his daughter, but it is Jake Gyllenhaal who manages to carry a lot of the film in that first precarious act. Gyllenhaal finds a nice balance between tragic and comic, reining the movie in whenever things look to get too saccharine.

Unfortunately, things rapidly slip out of control. The first act of Demolition works a tonal tightrope; it is not particularly graceful, but it manages to avoid tripping. In contrast, the rest of the film dives head-first into trite cliché and nauseating quirk. It frequently seems like writer Bryan Sipe stopped revising the script after the first thirty pages, or like director Jean-Marc Vallée stopped trying to tighten or focus the film after the first thirty minutes. Demolition quickly descends into an unholy mess.

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This collapse corresponds with the inevitable “broken protagonist meets dysfunctional surrogate family” plot, once Davis makes a meaningful connection with the customer service manager at the vending machine company. Naturally, Karen Moreno has her own issues; some them are tied into her son Chris, who also has his own stuff to work through. Demolition becomes an intersection of quirky dysfunctional people brought together by chance (or fate) in order to help one another.

There is something of a paradox to Demolition. The movie never actually tries all that hard. For most of its runtime, it follows the path of least resistance in a manner that is predictable and generic. There is inevitable conflict between Davis and his father in law over the legacy of Davis’ lost wife. There is an awkward sequence in which Karen comes into contact with Davis’ extended family. There are even stock revelations about dark secrets in Davis’ marriage that serve to overly simplify the movie’s emotional framework.

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At the same time, the sheer lack of energy or dynamism in Demolition is almost impressive of itself. The film goes through the motions so rigidly that it seems oblivious to its more awkward and misjudged moments. This is most obvious during a quirky scene that finds Davis and Chris playing with a gun, a sequence that is played a mildly (but hilariously!) troubling rather than borderline abusive. Similarly, the film focuses on the hollowness of grief in a materialistic existence, before Davis eventually finds some peace in a brazenly materialist gesture.

This is a shame, because the cast is actually quite solid. Gyllenhaal is great, and there is a sense that the film might have been stronger had it been willing to limit its focus to one broadly-drawn “quirky” protagonist instead of widening its focus to encompass three of them. Naomi Watts is reliable as Karen Mareno, but the script never really bothers to define her as anything other than a dysfunctional and disorganised point of connection to Davis. There is never a sense of what Karen actually wants, beyond not wanting what her romantic partner does.

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Demolition is nowhere near as messy as it would like to thing it is, tearing down a life but only in the most cliché of manners.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Audi Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 2

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2 Responses

  1. The best movie I’ve seen in a long time. It is quirky but delicious. It held my attention throughout the film.

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