This review was originally published in The National.
HOW are you supposed to grieve when someone close to you passes away? Is there a proper response, a correct mode of behaviour or way to feel? Those are the themes poked and prodded to impressive effect in this peculiar comedy-tinged drama.
Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Davis, a New York investment banker who finds his carefully constructed life shattered when his wife Julia (Heather Lind) dies in a car crash. In a certain state of shock, he writes letters of complaint to the vending machine company that failed to give him his peanut M&Ms at the hospital just after he found out his wife passed away.
This leads him to form an unlikely relationship with the company’s customer service rep (Naomi Watts), a friendship with her sparky young son (Judah Lewis) and on a road to re-examining his abruptly severed marriage and what that all means for his life moving forward.
Director Jean-Marc Vallée – whose previous critically acclaimed films include Dallas Buyers Club and Wild – brings his unusual and pleasingly laid-back style to a difficult topic, that of the aftermath of loss and grief taking hold. Or, rather, being conspicuous by its near-absence.
“Do you miss her?” Davis is asked. “I’m trying to,” is his honest reply. Rather than retreat into fits of hysterical emotion or never leaving his lavish home, he takes the advice of his father-in-law (an especially moving Chris Cooper) – “If you want to fix something, you have to take it apart” – rather literally.
This includes antique grandfather clocks, bathroom stalls, the fridge his late wife repeatedly told him was leaking and, in one strangely cathartic scene, completely destroying his expensive house with the use of a sledgehammer and a JCB he bought on ebay.
No, it’s not a film that’s exactly subtle with its metaphors. But it also never suffers because of that plain-spokenness. Instead, it’s a refreshingly forthcoming look at life after loss and the sometimes need to deconstruct and rebuild before being able to truly move on.
Gyllenhaal is on one hell of a streak as of late, with roles in the likes of Southpaw, Enemy and particularly breaking news satire Nightcrawler proving him one of Hollywood’s best acting talents. His performance here is one of keenly observed believability when it comes to conveying someone lost in his own life, quietly moving and tuned to just the right key of oddness to make it really memorable.
Demolition is not the typical drama that the set-up might suggest as it substitutes the usual clichés of external emotional response with bouts of heightened eccentricity as Davis exhibits the kind of erratic behaviour not usually associated with the grieving process. It certainly would make for a nice two sides of the same coin double-bill with last week’s Louder than Bombs.
People react in different ways to grief and the film explores that to inspiring and uplifting effect. With Gyllenhaal as the compelling anchor at the centre, this is a strange yet fascinating mélange of a film, one where quirkiness, pathos and catharsis sit potently side-by-side.