Jean-Marc Vallee’s follow-up to Wild sees Jake Gyllenhaal as Davis Mitchell, an investment banker whose world – supposedly – falls apart after his wife is suddenly killed in a car accident. However, given that this tragedy occurs in the very first scene of the film, before the credits have even fully rolled, this isn’t quite the gruelling study in grief that might be expected, especially as Davis was never especially attached to his wife, who turns out to have been in the midst of an affair with someone else anyway. Instead, the whole situation becomes a pretext for Davis to do some soul-searching, a process that starts with him writing a series of extended letters to the vending machine company responsible for stocking the emergency ward at the hospital after a faulty outfit fails to deliver him a chocolate bar during his darkest hour. Although these letters start off as a fairly standard formal complaint they quickly devolve into a series of reflections about life, the universe and everything else in quite a tailor-made, trailer-made kind of way (at times it felt as if I was just watching an extended trailer). Apart from a few snippets of incidental dialogue, these letters drive most of the first third of the film, which plays more or less as an extended, eccentric internal monologue on Davis’ part, making it all the more surprising – and relieving – when he is contacted by Karen Moreno (Naomi Watts), who is responsible for customer relations at the vending machine factory. Although she’s ostensibly calling about his complaint, the two quickly develop a rapport which – through a series of fairy strained contrivances – leads to them moving in with each other, or at least moving between each others’ houses. Meanwhile, Davis grows more and more distant from his responsibilities at the investment bank, which also happens to be headed by his ex-father-in-law Phil (Chris Cooper), who grows increasingly concerned and then offended in turn by Davis’ erratic, unpredictable and irreverent behaviour in the wake of his daughter’s death.
In some ways, this gradual convergence of Davis and Karen’s lives is both the most contrived and most elastic part of the film, since while it does depend on a series of fairly preposterous scenarios – running into each other on the train after having only spoken just once on the phone – it also creates quite a unique and emergent sense of intimacy, especially once Karen’s son Chris (Judah Lewis) enters the picture. As Karen and Davis alternately move in and out of each other’s houses, with Chris trailing after them, Vallee paints quite a touching picture of three people whose yearnings are inextricably intertwined but not fully identified with each other either. While there is a kind of sentimental rehumanist narrative along the lines of American Beauty here, and while Watts does often play as a bit of a latter day manic pixie dream girl, the film as a whole is too slippery to ever fully give itself over to its more cloying or sentimental possibilities. At the same time, that slipperiness draws out the tipsy, decentred, off-kilter light that Vallee does best, with many of the best scenes suffused with the washed-out beachside ambience, the peculiar sheen of winter light on water, that has evolved throughout his career, from the final desert sequences of C.R.A.Z.Y. to the harsh bright vistas of Dallas Buyers Club to the bracing Pacific Northwest light of Wild. In many ways, that evolving lightscape is Vallee’s personal take on American regionalism, and represents a space in his work in which small stories, or stories of intense individualism and introspection, can flourish against wider historical situations and panoramic natural backdrops. While the camera might feel most at home on the boardwalk where Davis and Karen form some of the strongest connections – the film ends with him establishing a carousel there in his wife’s memory – it also imbues most of the other spaces with the same liminal quality, giving the whole film a slightly beach, buoyant sense of flux and instability that culminates with Davis accidentally discovering his wife’s last message after putting down the visor to shield his eyes from the sun during a particularly glary, glassy, gruelling drive.
Whether or not Vallee himself is queer, this tipsy lightscape has tended to stand in for a kind of queer possibility within his body of work at large, not merely by way of the explicitly homosexual concerns and characters of C.R.A.Z.Y. and Dallas Buyers Club, but in terms of the way in which its shifting modulations enable a more sensuous and soulful scrutiny of the male body in all its fleeting incarnations than is normally afforded by mainstream American cinema. From the very beginning of Demolition, that creates a peculiarly heightened attention to Davis’ body, with the camera fetishising Gyllenhaal as much as Gyllenhaal fetishises itself. Although it must have something to do with the fact that I personally find Gyllenhaal intensely attractive, I have always found him one of the most narcissistic of contemporary American actors, which isn’t exactly a criticism or a value judgment so much as a sense that his beauty remains inescapable to him no matter what role he takes on or how ugly he tries to make himself appear. That brooding, solipsistic awareness of his own beauty has made him increasingly challenging to direct, and one of the real successes of Demolition is the way this quality is built into the narrative, which starts with a quite sensuous montage sequence of Davis preening himself – plucking his eyebrow, lathering up his midriff, shaving around his belly button – only to present his subsequent breakdown as an openness to new postures, stances and modes of bodily configuration that often make this feel like an allegory of Gyllenhaal breaking out of his own beauty, out of his own narcissistic prison, as much as anything else. Of course, that extension and augmentation of the body also has coming-out connotations too, so it feels right that Davis takes many of his cues from Chris, who himself comes out as gay towards the end of the film, leading to a quite touching conclusion at the old West Side Piers, as if to affirm that the ghosts of an older gay generation have in fact survived the corporate makeover of the city spearheaded by Davis’ professional milieu.
In many ways, it’s that uncanny synergy between Davis and Gyllenhaal’s own screen persona that prevents the film fully collapsing into the worst possible version of itself – yet another vision of an investment banker having a meltdown – and instead turns it into quite an eccentric and idiosyncratic take on grief. After all, the strange, provisional domesticity shared by Davis, Karen and Chris is really not all that far from your classic sitcom setup, giving a sense that some happy ending has dispersed and dissolved across Vallee’s mise-en-scene and creating quite an emergent, tragicomic tone that supervenes most of the actual set pieces. That’s fortunate, for while these set pieces may go for a self-consciously “existential” vibe – small inconveniences elevated to a matter of life and death, starting with the vending machine that sets Davis’ letters in motion – they actually tend to mitigate against Vallee’s own brand of cinematic existentialism more than any other part of the film, especially in the opening act, which plays as a single absurd, off-kilter montage sequence scored to Davis’ increasingly wordy pronouncements (“for some reason, everything has become a metaphor”) and so laughably self-indulgent that I still feel as if I must have missed the point somehow. Although I liked some aspects of both Dallas Buyers Club and Wild, I’ve had an unsettling suspicion that Vallee’s considerable visual talents have been co-opted by some of the most middlebrow Hollywood tendencies since he broke into the mainstream with C.R.A.Z.Y. and made the move from Quebec to the United States, and Demolition certainly doesn’t contradict that. If anything, it takes the ridiculousness of this kind of breakdown story to its logical conclusion, since the real revelation is that Davis’ efforts at self-discovery render him just as much of an imposition upon everybody as when he was alienated – if not more so – as well as just as disinterested in any of his subordinates at the investment bank who continue to do his work for him and finance his extravagant meltdown in the process.
All that comes to a head with his – supposedly – novel decision to experiment with manual labour from a position of almost inviolable financial security, the patronising assumption being the builders or any other people who work with their hands aren’t skilled or professional. Granted, the film presents Davis as upskilling but the comic logic works the other way, as the procedural minutiae of the investment firm are juxtaposed with Davis’ gleeful and infantile demolition of every surface in sight with little rhyme or reason, while getting a kick out of the possibility of being injured at work in what has to be the worst example of poverty tourism I have ever seen committed to the big screen. As his taste for destruction becomes ever more extravagant and eccentric, he starts to take apart every item in the firm’s office – leaving it to the administrative and operational staff to pick up the pieces – before bonding with Chris by smashing his expensive house to pieces while blithely telling him how insignificant all his possessions really are (“just shiny things”). While these testosterone-fuelled demolition scenes undoubtedly play well to Vallee’s queer eye, it’s still not hard to escape the feeling that this is someone having a meltdown just because he can afford it, delivering the most cliched pronouncements possible – “I want to know how things work” – while everyone goes on about how strange and eccentric he has become. It’s the kind of film that clarifies how much picaresque simply consists in having to encounter everyday people and situations without being shielded or cushioned from them, as Davis moves from the creative destruction of investment banking to straight-out uncreative destruction, gleefully destroying stuff as if it’s some kind of novelty, as if he hasn’t been destroying it all along. Utterly disinterested in really giving back – it’s an utterly narcissistic meltdown – Davis’ actions finally feel like every investment banker’s ultimate fantasy of discovering themselves, spinning out control and calling out the system, but only once they’ve got the financial security to do so. Yet it is that very narcissism that allows the film to so elegantly draw out the self-fetishising, homoerotic fringes of Gyllenhaal’s screen presence, as well as what makes it such a perfect vehicle for Vallee’s queer lightscapes – and it is a testament to his direction that he finally manages to make it feel as if this character and situation can speak to us, if only momentarily and only in the interstices of the film itself.