Jean-Marc Vallée’s Demolition opens with a couple in a car, taking a drive so loaded with unimportant chatter and tiny, impatient jabs that you can just about set your watch to the out-of-nowhere jump-scare car crash, which arrives right on schedule. That momentary lean on the most overindulged of dramatic clichés (and there’s some sort of weird circularity at play here, since Demolition co-star Chris Cooper was behind the wheel for one of the first, in Adaptation) gives way to a story that’s refreshingly uninterested in conventional narrative expectation; the hour or so that follows is borderline experimental in its form and gleefully shruggy in its storytelling. But that first scene remains in the memory, a reminder of the conventionality this film is capable of, and indulges in all too frequently the closer it gets to the finish line.
The couple are Davis (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Julia (Heather Lind, from Mistress America). He’s a Wall Street type whose own wife calls him a bad listener moments before the other vehicle plows into them, and his behavior in the days and weeks that follow seems to bear her out. He wanders around the hospital, seeing the blood on the sheets of the empty hospital bed, on the floor beneath it, on his expensive shoes. He’s similarly hollow at the funeral and the family reception after; Vallée’s camera catches him in a mirror, trying to make himself cry so he fits in. “You keep your emotions close to the vest, that’s good,” says his father-in-law (the touchingly vulnerable Cooper). But that’s not the case; he’s not feeling anything. Soon he’s confessing to strangers that not only did he not really know his wife, but he probably didn’t love her.
This is, to put it mildly, a bold way to approach a protagonist – he’s seen sympathetically, though he’s not sympathetic. His behavior gets stranger. He pours his life story into a series of complaint letters to the company responsible for the M&Ms he couldn’t retrieve from a vending machine, that night at the hospital. He forms an improbable bond with the woman reading those letters (played, with some admirable credibility, by Naomi Watts). He takes apart a refrigerator his wife was telling him to fix, and ends up deconstructing household appliances, to figure out how they work. One day, still decked out in his expensive suit, he sees a demolition crew tearing down a house, and asks if he can help. He doesn’t need to be paid. Hell, he’ll pay them.
The business with taking things apart as he’s trying to put his life together is a little heavy handed, and the “purity of working with one’s hands” business is awfully played out; it’s the kind of thing white-collar writers and filmmakers love to imagine, without talking to anyone who actually has to do it every day. But nonetheless, there’s something compelling about these scenes and their anything-goes spirit. And the slice/cut/stream-of-consciousness cutting style employed by Vallée and editor Jay M. Glenn, reminiscent of similar work on Vallée’s last film Wild, is tremendously effective – it conveys how memory tends to work in momentary glimpses and flashes, how every object can seem to be a trigger, and those inventively jagged cutting patterns keep the viewer off-balance.
There’s a charge to that first hour, a thrill of not knowing where on earth this thing is going, which is why it’s so disappointing when you start to figure it out – and you will if you’ve, oh, ever seen a movie before. Fight Club is a good start; Davis looks over his sleek upscale suburban home, sneering, “I hate this house, it’s just shiny stuff,” and sets out destroying it with sledgehammers and bulldozers, which is the kind of scene only the ultra-rich can take any kind of pleasure in. When he begins spending time with the similarly damaged Karen (Watts), Bryan Sipe’s script falls into frustratingly familiar manic-romance beats, up to and including frolics on the beach and secrets told in couch forts.
And then it all degenerates into a bunch of third-act crises and tragedies and breakthroughs, imposing a stern conventionality on a film that was, for so long, so refreshingly free of it. It’s a shame. The filmmaking is stellar and Gyllenhaal continues to turn ciphers and weirdos into remarkably urgent and strangely knowable portraiture. But for all of its experimentation and predictability, Demoliton turns out to be maddeningly vanilla.
Demolition opens Friday in limited release