Davis Mitchell, the main character in “Demolition,” won’t give up his lost coins without a fight. That sparks one of film’s least conventional dramas in some time.
“Demolition” tackles grief in a way that will make some uncomfortable. And that’s be design. The Jake Gyllenhaal vehicle offers its share of cookie-cutter moments, charting an investment banker’s recovery after losing his beautiful bride in a car accident. Gyllenhaal’s Davis rankles by refusing to mourn in a way we easily recognize.
Here are seven ways this terrific film challenges what audiences expect when it comes to tragic movie arcs:
- No Evil Father-in-Law Here: The great Chris Cooper plays the late woman’s father, a man understandably crippled by her passing. He’s a hard-charging investment banker like his son-in-law, and he’s willing to bury their shaky past for the sake of his late daughter. Another film might make Cooper’s character unpleasant, or even a controlling force who makes the main character’s recovery even harder. Instead, Cooper plays a broken man trying to do right by his family, avoiding a facile storytelling trope.
- Synchronized Suffering: Davis develops a friendship with a teen who has his own burdens to overcome. The lad is terribly confused, what with the onset of puberty and a mother indifferent to her live-in beau. Davis’s time with the teen makes up a significant part of the film, and how they help each other provides a fascinating look into loss and its after-effects.
- Social Mores Take a Holiday: We all know what’s expected of us after a loved one dies. We dress impeccably for the wake or funeral, greet family members with moist glances and keep the proverbial stiff upper lip. Davis won’t play by those rules. Watching him emotionally withdraw from everything we expect to see gives the film a rare vibrancy.
- It Takes the Right Actor: Gyllenhaal has given some terrific performances to date, including his work in “Brokeback Mountain.” This transcends that turn. His Davis is a wholly unique creation, powered by the actor’s sly charisma and willingness to get ugly.
- Metaphor Alert: The film’s biggest weakness is how hard it leans on its “demolition” metaphor. Davis needs to destroy the remnants of his old life to start anew. We get it. That doesn’t mean we need to see him literally tear apart his modern home. There’s a measure of catharsis for both Davis and the audience in his demolition projects. Director Jean-Marc Vallée of “Dallas Buyers Club” fame falls in love with the metaphor, where a more discreet romance would have served everyone better.
- Money Helps the Healing: The film’s signature gimmick finds Davis tearing apart everything he can find. Doing that isn’t easy. Or cheap. The film conveniently looks the other way regarding the main character’s finances for the visual stimulation that “demolition” delivers. This makes Davis’ recovery far less relatable to the masses.
- No Sex, Please: Gyllenhaal’s character forms an unlikely relationship with a single mother, played by the sublime Naomi Watts. Their bond is unusual, like most elements of the film. But it’s not based on physical attraction. Other films might have played up their spark, or even spun their age difference into something to spice up the film’s trailer. Instead, their uneasy friendship plays a critical role in Davis’ healing process.