Last week, in my review of Jean-Marc Vallée’s Wild, I acknowledged the Montreal director’s increasingly recognisable style, which makes use of fleeting images and flashbacks to produce emotionally hard-hitting revelations in the present. The intricate task of balancing the past and the present is no easy feat, and as such Vallée earns his auteur status. In my eagerness to further explore and appreciate Vallee’s growing artistic style, I watched his latest film, 2016’s Demolition, only to be disappointed by the misappropriation of the director’s style, which contrasts poorly with his previous achievements in Wild.
The film opens on a fitting but tragic note, as Davis Mitchell (Jake Gyllenhaal), a New York investment banker, is involved in a car accident with his wife, who dies as a result of the crash. Sadly, this is as streamlined as any element of the story really becomes. Bryan Sipe’s screenplay can be frustratingly unfocussed, taking Davis down a road of self-discovery that is supposed to be as insightful as it is metaphorically profound, but instead comes off as self-indulgent and schizophrenic as the actions of its lead character.
Davis is supposed to be undergoing an internal transformation that transcends those around him, but instead he comes across as erratic, self-absorbed, pretentious, and pretty much unlikeable, especially since he is not the only one suffering the loss. On more than one occasion my eyes narrowed, suspect of the numerous offbeat narrative directions the film takes, only to feel like it never truly committed to any of them. That is not to say that Davis and his story don’t have their moments of emotional insight, owing greatly to Gyllenhaal’s strong performance, but these elements are just too scattershot to ever really be considered relatable, or even make Davis a compelling character.
To be sure, this is a work of Jean-Marc Vallée, with his visual prowess noticeably present here, but the use of his trademark flashbacks and internal dialogue, which worked so well for character development in Wild, falls surprisingly flat here. I think the introduction of Karen, played by the versatile Naomi Watts, and her rebellious son Chris (Judah Lewis) is intended to add meaningful weight to Davis’ arc and complement Vallée’s directorial style, but in the end they serve only to magnify the overhanging identity crisis of an already muddled plot.
I still maintain Jean-Marc Vallée is one of my favourite Canadian directors, with a number of accomplished works under his belt, but Demolition is an uncharacteristic misfire. While I place more blame on Sipe’s pseudo-philosophical screenwriting than I do on Vallee’s misplaced direction, the pairing nonetheless results in a disengaging mess that felt much longer than its 100 minute runtime. Thankfully, Vallée proves he has otherwise not missed a step with his work on the hit TV show Big Little Lies last year, having directed every episode in the series. I can only hope that for his next feature film, Vallée is more cautious with his choice of screenplay.