Early on in Demolition, Davis Mitchell (Jake Gyllenhaal), a wealthy investment banker who’s just lost his wife in a car accident, is seen weeping uncontrollably in front of a mirror. Then, like flipping a light switch, he pulls himself together and takes a deep breath, as if nothing had happened. It’s not entirely clear which emotion is genuine and which is a façade, and this protracted ambiguity gives the film much of its energy. Davis is a protagonist with a complicated psychology, and director Jean-Marc Vallée keeps the viewer at a distance, rendering many of Davis’s actions and intentions inscrutable—and often highly disturbing.

Fans of the Susan Ross arc on “Seinfeld” will immediately recognize the fundamentals of the film’s plot, though screenwriter Bryan Sipe laces the pitch-black premise with some unbearably maudlin clichés. The film begins with the car accident and moves right into the aftermath. It is immediately clear—even from the brief opening dialogue between husband and wife—that the marriage had become stale. It would seem that Davis had as much affection for his late wife as his father-in-law and boss, Phil (Chris Cooper), has for him. (A quick flashback shows Phil stating, simply, “I don’t like you, Davis.”) Despite Davis’s seeming indifference, he’s roped by Phil into starting a foundation in honor of his wife. Though Cooper delivers a reliably solid performance, the film brings little insight or originality to its portrait of a father’s unimaginable grief. There are plenty of signifiers, including lots of shouting and copious tears, but nothing revelatory.

Demolition maintains a much more complex relationship with Davis, who, taking an innocuous piece of advice from Phil literally, begins to destroy the life he and his wife had built together, starting with their possessions and eventually bulldozing their posh modernist home. He even joins a construction crew to satisfy his lust for demolition. What this film is, at its core, is just another story of male self-actualization; the female characters are either collateral damage (Davis’s dead wife) or mere plot catalysts, as is the case with Karen (Naomi Watts), a customer service representative who responds to Davis’s increasingly dejected letters.

Sensing he’s in crisis, Karen reaches out and begins a tentative relationship with Davis. Her character’s one defining quality is a pot habit, but she doesn’t have much of an arc. She’s in the story mainly so Davis can meet her 13-year old son, Chris (Judah Lewis), an intelligent delinquent who’s starting to figure out that he’s gay. His friendship with Davis develops in a really interesting way; scenes that could play out as hackneyed bonding moments are fraught with darkness, such as when they mess around with a pistol and a Kevlar vest.

But by the end, things wrap up so neatly that any of the film’s complexity is retroactively cheapened. Despite the exceptionally talented trio of Gyllenhaal, Watts and Cooper, Demolition is an unorthodox but ultimately disappointing film from Jean-Marc Vallée, whose work usually ranges from so-so (Wild) to god-awful (Dallas Buyers Club). Keep your expectations in check.

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