Demolition follows investment broker Davis Mitchell (Jake Gyllenhaal) as he falls apart following the death of his wife in a car accident. At the hospital, a vending machine fails to dispense a pack of M&Ms. He writes a complaint letter to the vending machine company, and ends up sharing a completely honest account of his relationship with his recently deceased wife. Davis, who has been feeling numb to the world for the last few years, gains a new curiosity for the world, and a obsession with tearing things apart. Through his complaint letters, he gains a strange new friend in Karen (Naomi), the customer service rep of the vending machine company.
Demolition puts us in the head of a man who has attained what most people would consider a pretty good life. Tragedy then forces him to come face to face with the emptiness of all of it. It forces him to confess that maybe he didn’t really love his wife, that he doesn’t really like his job, and that he doesn’t know how anything works. The movie is really about him trying to find experiences that break him out of his comfortable numbness. Without his wife providing a focal point for this life, Davis spirals out of control, and starts to detest everything that he’s built for himself.
It isn’t the easiest thing to build sympathy for a character that has everything and just wants to throw it all away. It is understandable enough that Davis rails against the confines of his meticulously constructed life, that he wants to tear it all down to find something real in the rubble. But as the film goes on, it becomes harder and harder to relate to the character’s struggle. It doesn’t really feel like he’s moving forward, and that he seems intent to hurt other people along the way. Davis makes an uneasy shift from quirky to annoying somewhere in the middle of the film, the character not making enough progress to justify the bad behavior.
The lack of progress is felt hardest in the end, where the film suddenly makes a leap for sudden catharsis. The movie goes for something a little sweeter than what the rest of the story has been delivering, and it all feels totally unearned. The movie has a lot of smart touches; many of its scenes are cut together in an interesting way, and there are moments of darkly funny release. But the package as a whole feels terribly unsure of itself, the screenplay making wild stabs at emotional beats rather than trying to build them organically.
Credit the actors for keeping the film as watchable as it is. Jake Gyllenhaal really finds the humanity in this character. Even in the midst of the character’s strangest behavior, the actor manages to keep him on the ground. Naomi Watts builds something rather interesting as well. A lesser actress might have just made Karen out to be a collection of weaknesses. But there is strength lurking in Karen’s desperation, and Watts lets that shine through in pivotal moments. Rounding out the cast is Chris Cooper in a thankless role that he turns into an emotional anchor.
Demolition just loses steam somewhere in the middle. Davis’ struggle is weirdly charming at first, but a lack of progress in his character makes the whole story sag. At some point, it just becomes a manifestation of white people problems, the main character seemingly unaware of the privilege afforded to him by his affluent life. There is certainly merit to what the film is trying to say, but the vehicle through which it says becomes wearisome. And then it jumps ahead to an emotional conclusion that doesn’t feel earned.