If you decide to watch Demolition, there’s likely to be a point in the film where you’ll ask, “Where is this all going?” There are plenty of great movies where this question comes up, but Demolition isn’t one of them because it can’t decide whether or not it has an answer. Demolition’s themes are common in modern cinema: struggling with loss, connecting with others, and finding something important to live for. Bryan Sipe’s screenplay and Jean-Marc Vallée’s direction explore each of these themes well by allowing emotions to marinate. We learn about characters slowly, moments flash in and out of existence quickly, and memories seem both intimate and distant.
In Demolition’s opening moments, we’re witness to an emotionally stilted conversation between a husband named Davis, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, and wife named Julia, played by Heather Lind, that abruptly ends in a violent car accident. As viewers, we’re kept away visually from the trauma of this accident, so it would be normal for us to feel emotionally detached from the news of Julia’s death. This deliberately distant presentation of events connects us immediately with Gyllenhaal’s character, who appears to numb during the entire hospital sequence. We can now avoid judging his behavior as he spends the rest of the film dealing with what his emotions, or lack thereof, mean.
Naturally, Davis’ aloof attitude in the aftermath of the accident greatly upsets Julia’s family even though they attempt to be understanding at first. Rather than trying to connect with Julia’s mother and father, Davis reaches out to a vending machine company and ends up meeting Naomi Watt’s character, Karen. His relationship with Karen and her son, Chris, played by Judah Lewis, ends up forming the emotional core of the film. Lewis plays off Gyllenhall in unusual but extremely effective ways, gradually allowing Davis into his character’s emotions while still retaining a hard edge that he presents to the outside world. On the surface, these two characters seem very different, but their inability to fit in with their surroundings grounds their relationship.
Unfortunately, Demolition doesn’t quite know where to go with the world its built. When Chris comes out to Davis as gay in a hardware store, the teenager gains the confidence needed to start expressing himself to the outside world. This leads to a tragic incident in which he and a friend are savagely beaten, ostensibly by bigots. The single shot we see of Chris’ beating is absolutely brutal, yet the film doesn’t seem to reflect the gravity of the situation emotionally like we may think it would for Davis. Dealing with Chris’ injury offered a great opportunity for Gyllenhaal’s character to relive the trauma of his wife’s death in a newly enlightened context, detonating his emotional grenade. The film, however, refuses to pull the pin.
Demolition ends with Gyllenhaal running down the beach with a bunch of kids laughing, a kind of conclusion that fervently tries to project profundity but is really just confusing. Its disconnection from the emotions and themes of the rest of the film prevents it from having an effective impact.