TIFF Review: 'Demolition'

(USA, 100 min.)
Dir. Jean-Marc Vallée, Writ. Bryan Sipe
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Naomi Watts, Chris Cooper, Judah Lewis
Programme: Galas (World Premiere)
Photo courtesy of TIFF.

Jean-Marc Vallée returns to the wild, beautiful, and terrifying terrain of grief in Demolition. The Québécois filmmaker shows the range of his skill by following up Wild, his best film to date, with a film of similar subject matter, but an altogether different approach. Whereas Reese Witherspoon takes a walk in the wilderness of her grief in Wild, Jakes Gyllenhaal rumbles with the best of male aggression in Demolition. This newest film from Vallée, which screened as the Opening Night selection of this year's Toronto International Film Festival, continues the director's innovative approach to film and character as he exposes the soul of a man whom audiences haven't seen before. Demolition is a bold risk that succeeds.

Demolition breaks down the male ethos when Gyllenhaal's Davis last name loses his wife Julia (Heather Lind) in a car accident and fails to respond with a messy blubbering cry face. Instead, he does what comes naturally to little boys and men who need to release done steam: he breaks shit. As Davis dismantles his refrigerator (wife's last words to him were a reminder to fix it), Vallée shatters the audience's prescription of this life rocked by grief. Davis unleashes his restlessness in a series of attacks on physical objects, and Demolition similarly fragments the narrative with shards of Davis's life

Vallée's uses shards of memory sparingly, as Demolition plays with loss and memory more conventionally than the memory game of Wild does. Memories play as intercuts and reminders, rather than as pieces of a puzzle, but they bridge the film to its own appropriate catharsis as the black dramedy peaks. One wishes that Vallée himself had edited Demolition as he's done with his other films, but Demolition still has the hallmarks of a Vallée film even if it the montage mosaics appear fleetingly. The cinematography by Yves Bélanger is moody and fluid, and the aesthetic straddles comedy and tragedy by rejecting the high key lighting of studio comedy in favour of moody palettes that keep spirits bright. The soundtrack still swells as it always does and it vividly and intensely throbs with the psychology of its characters. Songs take on new meanings as, say, Heart becomes an anthem of sadness. His hand with the actors, similarly, is once again excellent.

Gyllenhaal adds another commendable credit to his recent string of complex and versatile roles. Demolition plays shrewdly into Gyllenhaal's enviable looks, as ample shots of him shaving and manscaping his chiseled chest introduce a man acutely conscious of an image of masculinity he wants to project. The film challenges Gyllenhaal physically and spiritually as Vallée calls upon him to break down the burly wall of Davis's physique and unleash the stronger, more sensitive man within. Gyllenhaal is funnier and more nimble with his emotions in Demolition than he is in many of his past performances. It's an altogether different side of his skills after Southpaw.

Naomi Watts, similarly, brings the right blend of cautiousness, awkwardness, and humanity to a character that sells a storyline that could have been fatal in lesser hands. Watts plays Karen a customer agent who reaches out to Davis with unorthodox means. Karen and her son Chris (Judah Lewis) form a surrogate family with Davis. With them, he finds genuine love and support, unlike the coldness and calculated composure he find with his in-laws (Chris Cooper and Polly Draper) who mirror the sterile orderliness of Julia’s home that Davis smashes. Demolition sheds its weight as Davis rediscovers himself with his new pseudo-family as he shares letters with Karen and smashes stuff with Chris. Vallée’s real kaleidoscopic signature here, which usually arises through the editing in his films, twists in the various tones that piece together the stages of Davis’s grief and collides them together for a unifying catharsis.

The only fault one can find with Demolition is that it's a good film that Vallée has already made, and he did it better before. Call Wild and Demolition the Woody Allen films of Vallée's career as he makes back to back films with similar stories end themes, but with different tones and approaches. However, one can still admire Irrational Man even if one loves Crimes and Misdemeanors, so Vallée's deeply humane and darkly funny Demolition continues his recent winning streak.

Rating: ★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

Demolition opens in theatres April 8 from VVS Films.

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