The Title Says a Lot: Demolition

by / Apr. 6, 2016 4am EST

In Billy Wilder’s famous Sunset Boulevard (1950), the distressed screenwriter played by William Holden says at one point, “Audiences don’t know anybody writes a movie. They think actors just make it up as they go along.” Something of an exaggeration even then, produced no doubt by Wilder’s bilious memories of his lowly, indentured turn as a free-lance and studio writer in the 1930s. (At one point, he had to sleep in a large closet.)

Historically, writers have been the movie industry’s expendable functionaries; their work was necessary but rarely extolled, frequently altered-butchered in the writers’ minds—and only grudgingly respected. Of course, they were also handsomely paid for their work, a fact which drew the likes of William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Raymond Chandler to Hollywood. The later fashionable auteur theory that enshrined directors as a movie’s supreme creators didn’t help injured egos.

The director may still be the aesthetic cock of the walk in today’s multi-platform, but somewhat diminished movie industry, but the responsibility for the mess that became the current release Demolition can be laid at the door of Bryan Sipe’s artily schizoid, flagrantly foolish script. It’s very, very difficult to imagine anyone salvaging this picture and keeping virtually anything of Sipe’s work. Its harebrained conceits and storyline are irredeemable. They are the picture. (This doesn’t absolve those who like director Jean-Marc Vallee turned them into a movie.)

Demolition opens with a shock stunt: A young man and a woman, his wife, are riding in a car, talking, when an unseen car slams into them, a very brief, frightening sequence that’s all too viscerally real.

Next, we find Davis Mitchell (Jake Gyllenhaal) at a hospital, calmly receiving news of his wife’s death—he’s apparently unscratched—before he tries to get some candy from a vending machine, which doesn’t deliver it. After complaining to a hospital employee, he goes home and begins a long, maundering complaint letter to the vending company. “I found it upsetting,” he writes, “because I was hungry, and my wife had just died.” Continuing on in an autobiographical vein, he tells the company, “Perhaps you find this irrelevant [to his request for a refund], but I think you deserve the whole story.” Kind of strange, no?

Meanwhile, Davis has almost immediately returned to work at the investment firm of his father-in-law (Chris Cooper), and to the distinct confusion of its employees exhibits no signs of grief, or that anything important has happened. Also meanwhile, his very off-key, somewhat creepy letters have been flagged by a customer relations person (Naomi Watts), who finds them intriguing. So she calls Davis at 2am to express her condolence.

In the interim, Davis has felt compelled to disassemble his refrigerator because it has a slight leak. This compulsion will eventually lead to his attempt to demolish his sleekly modernist house with a backhoe and hand tools. There’s a lot more, but I’m really having some difficulty coherently summarizing the piled-on, audience-challenging incongruities.

Sipe and Vallee have developed Davis’ story in a way that strongly suggests he’s seriously afflicted with a crippled affect, unable to respond to human experiences with common emotions and empathy. At times, you can easily believe Davis may be autistic, not to mention suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder. But the movie takes a rather abrupt turn toward something roughly like a sentimentally realized personal engagement and insight. Normality, in other words.

Demolition is so raggedly uneven in tone that it’s difficult to discern Sipe’s intention: Was he aiming for a kind of wry social observation, or a mild black comedy? Vallee’s direction is smoothly effective, but he doesn’t seem to have perceived how meretricious the material is. Gyllenhaal has become a very capable, sensitive performer, but his adept, often subtle efforts can’t make sense of this confusion.

Sipe most likely must have intended Davis to be insulated from his loss, and to portray his eventual awakening to it and to other people’s lives, but we’re given no real evidence of such recognition. The outcome isn’t only manipulative, it’s more puzzling than gratifying.

Demolition seems to be the product of a poetic self-indulgence in preposterous creation.