Imagine someone told you that there was a new album by Coldplay, Adele or Ed Sheeran and that it was really ‘edgy’. Would you believe them? Would it turn out to be that way? Or would it be the coffee shop consumerist version of ‘edgy’? Something that sounds different to their prior somnambulist form, but is in fact more or the same, repackaged and branded as ‘edgy’ without any real element of risk involved? It’s a question that springs to mind when considering Demolition, the latest film from Jean-Marc Vallée.
Vallée has made a quick name for himself following the one-two release of Oscar friendly dramas Dallas Buyers Club and Wild. Within the space of a couple of years he’s cemented himself a position of safety by providing mid-to-high quality dramas anchored by a strong and appealing central performance from an established favourite. First Matthew McConaughey, then Reese Witherspoon. Demolition sees him continuing the trend, this time offering us one of the most consistent and interesting Hollywood A-listers to hand; Jake Gyllenhaal.
Except this time Vallée is attempting to corner a slightly different market, opting to court the quirky indie dramedy market; an arena that reached saturation point around a decade ago (you couldn’t move for an I Heart Huckabees or a Little Miss Sunshine) and has been on the wane ever since.
Gyllenhaal plays Davis, a successful finance man who loses his wife Julia (glimpsed Heather Lind) in a car accident that leaves him completely unscathed. Demolition charts his grief process through the medium of a series of complaint letters he sends to a vending machine company (really). The recipient of these letters, pot-smoking mother-of-one Karen (Naomi Watts), gets drawn improbably into his day-to-day life, while his boss and father-in-law Phil (Chris Cooper) fumes at Davis’ seemingly callous and disrespectful behaviour.
With grating frequency, Demolition strives to impress its audience with quirks that mark Davis’ journey and thought-process as a-typical. It wants us to gasp when Davis blithely admits he didn’t love his wife, or when it shows us a teenager smoking and swearing. These and many other small trophies within the script feel like conspicuous attempts to achieve some sort of street cred. For some reason Demolition really cares about being perceived as a cool movie. And we all know what happens when someone tries too hard to get in with the in-crowd. That sense that Vallée’s film has arrived a full decade behind the curve comes into sharp focus when Bryan Stipe’s script flat-out plagiarises a memorable speech from HBO’s TV series Six Feet Under.
There’s almost a moment of self-awareness in all of this when Davis (via the heavyhanded narration from Gyllenhaal) muses on how everything he sees has become a metaphor. Except his metaphors are meaningless. He starts trying to give us examples, only to trip over his own words and even backtrack. For a second Demolition suggests it’s discovered it’s own clunky anti-cool, it’s creepy insincerity… before blindly returning to form, proffering us more of it’s wholly inoffensive claptrap, the nadir of which is a series of pointlessly reversed shots of people running or walking around.
Yet there are saving graces. Gyllenhaal for one shows no sign of ending his current streak of memorable performances, selling Davis’ time bomb nonchalance and frequently immature behaviour in the wake of losing someone special (spoiler: Davis cared a lot obviously). Watts is dependable as ever. See also Chris Cooper, who ought to have a trademark on thunderously disapproving scowls.
The real find here, and really the diamond in the rough of the story as well, is Judah Lewis who plays Karen’s gender fluid teenage son Chris. The kid goes toe-to-toe with Gyllenhaal and comes out of it every bit his equal on screen. It’s also extremely heartening to see a teenager wrestling with identity portrayed in a film with such evenness and (for a while, at least) restraint. For a long stretch in the middle of the movie, Chris serves as Demolition‘s unexpected kernel of truth. He’s also one of the few aspects of the film that feels like part of the present zeitgeist and not some remnant of a script that’s been in a drawer for ten years. So what if his inclusion began life as yet another earnest plea for credibility? On this front Demolition nails it (too bad that Chris’ arc goes exactly where you’d expect following some lumpen foreshadowing).
I feel as though I’ve sounded unnecessarily mean or hostile towards this film, when really, like all middle of the road material, it doesn’t have quite enough momentum within it to create extreme reactions. Demolition so badly wants to be the Fight Club of dealing-with-your-grief movies. But it has all the depth and profundity of a greetings card. It’s hard to get annoyed by greetings cards. Often they’re quite nice. But after a while they’re also just clutter.
And Demolition doesn’t need to be ‘edgy’, whatever the hell that is anyway. Being honest would’ve likely yielded far more satisfying results. Let Coldplay be Coldplay, for goodness sake. People love Coldplay.
For some reason, people love Coldplay.