“Demolition” is a movie about the peculiarities of grief. Although the various stages of grief have become so familiar it almost qualifies as a cultural cliche. But grief can manifest itself in infinitely particular ways, depending on the personality and the circumstances of the one who’s grieving.
And there’s no one more particular, maybe even peculiar, than the man at the center of this movie, a repressed young investment banker named Davis, played by Jake Gyllenhaal.
When his wife dies suddenly in a car accident, Davis finds himself examining every minute detail of his life. Sometimes it’s big important stuff but mostly it’s ridiculously mundane stuff that obsesses him. Like the candy machine that didn’t spit out his M&M’s. Davis decides to write the vending company a letter about the issue.
“Dear Champion Vending Company. I put five quarters in your machine and proceeded to push B2 which should have given me Peanut M&M’s. Regrettably, it did not. I found this upsetting as I was very hungry. And also, my wife had died 10 minutes earlier. I’m not saying that was your fault. I just want to be thorough.”
Through a series of more and more revealing and even confessional letters to the customer service department of this vending machine manufacturer, this man seeks some kind of redress — some kind of satisfaction that is not likely to ever come his way.
When he unexpectedly receives a late night phone call from the woman at the customer service office who’s been reading all these letters of his, Davis is jolted into an even closer examination of his past life. This woman, played by Naomi Watts, becomes his vehicle to re-evaluate life in general.
He remembers, for instance, his wife always accused him of not paying attention. So now he pays attention to everything — maybe too much. In fact, he notices that everything is suddenly becoming a metaphor for something else. Here’s his father-in-law with more metaphoric advice:
“Repairing the human heart is like repairing an automobile. You have to take everything apart.”
Perhaps too literally, this movie takes that metaphor and runs with it. As our grieving husband dismantles every object in his home and at the office, we realize he’s seeking some kind of psychological solace. When he moves on to actual demolition, it’s hard to tell if he’s gone off the deep end or if he’s really on the road to recovery.
Admittedly, “Demolition” covers some pretty familiar ground, and resolves itself a little too patly, but the script is just quirky enough and Gyllenhaal’s performance is singular enough that it manages to dismantle the cliches without demolishing their resonance.