Deconstructing the Psyche in ‘Demolition’

Bradley Alsop
Jean Marc Vallee’s film Demolition follows the story of Davis Mitchell, portrayed by Jake Gyllenhaal, as he goes through an existential crisis.

There is something disorienting about observing the deconstruction of physical objects — it shows nothing truly can remain intact. As Jake Gyllenhaal’s Davis Mitchell exemplifies in the film “Demolition,” neither do people. Davis repeatedly reinforces the relations between human and material in Jean Marc Vallee’s “Demolition,” a spellbinding but often flawed work that attempts to find allegory in every moment. It makes for a truly intriguing viewing experience, but not necessarily a holistically satisfying one.

The movie follows the plight of Davis, an apathetic investment banker devoid of existential purpose. The first scene lays the groundwork for Davis’ ostensibly empty life, with a particularly banal stretch of dialogue between him and his wife Julia (Heather Lind) in their car. Yet the wrought tension and metaphysical dissonance that underscores the entire film begins shortly after, as the conversation distracts Julia enough for her to take her eyes off the road. She runs a red light, causing a car to strike theirs, killing her instantly and leaving Davis almost completely unscathed.

Shortly after the accident, Davis’ mental constitution begins to unravel. He becomes peculiarly consternated by a faulty vending machine. He wears the shirt he had on the day of the accident back to his home in upstate New York, the bloodstains dried. Vallee guides the viewer towards the unorthodox nature of Davis’ mechanism of coping: he is broken, but the viewer senses a therapeutic nature in his sense of disrepair.

Davis’ life continues to unravel as he subverts his daily routines, bucking convention and common logic at every turn. Instead of moving on from the issue with the faulty vending machine, Davis begins to pen lengthy letters to the customer service department of the vending machine company, letters that appear to look less like complaints and more like confessionals. The letters take the form of a human correspondence between Davis and the representative for the company, the temporarily absent but casually compelling Karen Moreno (Naomi Watts).

Through the budding relationship between Karen and her son Chris (Judah Lewis), Davis reinvigorates himself through the process of destruction. He destroys and deconstructs, to the extent of purchasing a bulldozer and demolishing his own home. He essentially attempts to obliterate his past life in favor of his newfound discovery of liberation through dissembling. It is a fascinating, oft untapped method of regeneration, which Vallee playfully examines through the transformation of not only Davis, but of the objects with which he chooses to rip apart.

Unfortunately, the film leaves much to be desired in terms of executional success. Some scenes are simultaneously poignant, hilarious and heartbreaking, truly utilizing the performances of Watts, Gyllenhall and Lewis, as well as Julia’s father and Davis’ boss Phil (Chris Cooper). But some scenes, which border on simple, transitional passages, recur to the point of sheer tedium, with no urgency or necessity for their inclusion. While some scenes catapult Vallee into the realm of great directors, the extra flotsam brings him back down to the dialogue of a stellar creative mind in desperate need of a better editor.

“Demolition” opens in area theaters on Thursday, April 7.

A version of this article appeared in the Monday, April 4 print edition. Email Bradley Alsop at [email protected]



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