A line of dialogue, from an interior monologue by the film’s disturbed protagonist, causes a cautious viewer to shudder while watching “Demolition.” It happens early enough in this new film by the Quebecois director, Jean-Marc Vallée, who is known for films (“Dallas Buyers Club,” “Wild”) that put protagonists through intense wingers.
This protagonist is a successful investment banker named Davis, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, in yet another role where the actor doubles down on intensity as if the young Robert De Niro were his sole role model.
Anyway Davis’ life has come completely unhinged with the sudden death of his wife in a car accident so he’s wandering through what remains of that life in a post traumatic daze.
As he gazes at the world around him, on the train into Manhattan, at an uprooted tree, at the electronic equipment on his desk or in his kitchen, he utters the phrase: “For some reason everything has become a metaphor.”
Uh-oh, you think, and sure enough everything in the movie — his late wife, the house they inhabited, his in-laws, job, office and all its perplexing equipment — does suddenly become a metaphor. But when everything in a movie is reduced to a metaphor then nothing is the least bit real.
All characters and events move to a metaphorical level where the viewer is asked to contemplate the wreckage of an unexamined life.
For that is the linchpin to “Demolition,” the old platitude about the worth of an unexamined life. It seems that Davis has drifted through his life without ever fully living in it.
He married his beautiful wife Julia (Heather Lind seen briefly in the beginning and then in Davis’ imagination thereafter) without any serious thought or certainly any desire for a wife, slid into a cushy job in his father-in-law’s Wall Street firm and then into a super modern suburban house.
The house is the kind production designers give to characters who lead empty, sterile lives — all glass and metal and sleek surfaces with scarcely a trace of human occupation. So even the set design is a metaphor.
You find out much of his back story through letters Davis writes to a vending company’s customer service department to complain about the packet of M&M’s that got stuck in their vending machine at the hospital where his wife died.
Davis pours out his history in coolly articulated letters seeking compensation for his lost quarters and, wouldn’t you know it, these letters connect with the customer service rep on the other end, Karen (Naomi Watts), another lost soul looking for a way out.
Davis feels nothing, not even sorrow for his dead wife. He now realizes he hasn’t felt anything in years. When he steps on a nail later in the movie, he yells in pain but also in joy at actually feeling the pain, at actually feeling anything at all.
But why is the movie called “Demoltion?”
Well, he picks up on a random suggestion by his father-in-law (Chris Cooper), struggling to help a man clearly in mental crisis, to take apart his life “piece by piece” in order to see how it works so he can rebuild it.
Unfortunately, he takes this idea literally and begins dismantling everything in sight from his refrigerator at home to his computer and that creaky men’s room door at work.
Aiding him in this demolition of his life are his friendly customer service rep Karen and her young, equally unhappy and sexually confused son Chris (newcomer Judah Lewis). Now I don’t know how many mothers would abandon their sons to the company of a mentally unstable man they just met, to do things like play target practice with a real gun and a bullet-proof vest, but Karen is one of the rare birds who does. It helps, I suppose, that she’s a pothead.
You examine the credits of the movie for some sign that “Demolition” is a shaky adaptation of a novel since most of its techniques are literary rather than cinematic — the letters, the inner monologues, the blinkered point of view and overly precise deadpan language.
But, no, this is an original screenplay by Bryan Sipe, one that wound up on the Black List where it languished for years before getting produced. Undoubtedly it did read well. But it doesn’t play well.
It wants to strike cords of nonconformity in a Salingeresque disgust with the adult world. You’re asked to cheer Davis’ rebellion against his own life and sneer at the grieving parents and a workaday world that shakes his head at Davis’ increasingly sociopathic behavior.
The movie’s key relationship is between Davis and the boy Chris, both essentially innocents confounded by a world consumed with roles and work and, in Chris’ case, bullying. It’s never even clear when or if Davis’ relationship with Chris’ mother ever turned romantic although it’s treated as such.
But Davis and Chris work through initial hostility to acceptance and then reliance. The two work together to demolish Davis’ now despised house, taking sledge hammers to all that glass and plaster and metal and equipment in youthful rebellion.
Again, that image — that metaphor— might work on paper. But witnessing Gyllenhaal, playing the role awfully close to the cold and creepy newshound in “Nightcrawler,” destroy an entire house rather than simply selling it and getting out of Dodge or, worse, disrespecting if not mocking his in-laws’ grief and their efforts to pay tribute to their daughter (and his late wife) is at best disheartening and off-putting.
There’s considerable anxious activity toward the end, parallel scenes edited together in a confused manner, that struggles to resolve storylines but fudges them instead. Like much that has transpired before this, Vallée tries to cast the movie as an off-beat comedy or dramedy but the material doesn’t easily yield to this approach.
The protagonist is too vague. If he’s truly a successful Wall Street player, how can he be so disconnected from everything he does? He appears in a daze even before the accident. And if his wife’s death truly shocks him to his senses, why is he suddenly so insensitive to just about everyone other than a 12-year-old kid?
Curiously, the only subplot that works is that between Davis and Chris. Here’s a story about two confused youngsters (even though one is an adult). In their scenes together, the filmmakers move away from the phony rigging of the rest of the dramedy to the simplicity of these two comparing notes about how to handle a world not of their own making or liking.
Playing opposite an adolescent whose acting is natural, Gyllenhaal loosens up. His character needs the kid and so does the actor need the younger one. The movie finally, in these moments, escapes the world of metaphor.
Opens April 8, 2016 (Fox Searchlight)
Production companies: Mr. Mudd, Black Label Media, SKE
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Naomi Watts, Chris Cooper, Judah Lewis, Heather Lind
Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
Screenwriter: Bryan Sipe
Producers: Lianne Halfon, Russ Smith, Molly Smith, Trent Luckinbill, Sidney Kimmel, Jean-Marc Vallée
Executive producers: Thad Luckinbill, Ellen H. Schwartz, Carla Hacken, Bruce Toll, Nathan Ross, John Malkovich, Jason Reitman, Helen Estabrook
Director of photography: Yves Bélanger
Production designer: John Paino
Costume designer: Leah Katznelson
Editor: Jay M. Glen
R rating, 101 minutes