Dear director Jean-Marc Vallée,
I happened to catch your film Demolition at a cinema recently, and may I say I was a little disappointed. While it had a good cast, and some memorable scenes, there were a few things about it I did not enjoy. Which is a a shame, as I enjoyed the earlier films you directed, particularly Dallas Buyers Club (2013) and Wild (2014).
Since a large part of your movie revolves around a man writing complaint letters, I thought it was only appropriate that my review also comes in the form of a complaint letter.
Let me first start with the good: the premise of your movie is intriguing. Davis (Jake Gyllenhaal) is an investment banker who seems to have it all: a nice home, a steady lifestyle and a beautiful wife (Heather Lind). Things change, however, after Heather’s unexpected death. While this would devastate anyone, Davis only feels a deep numbness. He realises he has never really loved his wife, and is unhappy with his life.
The opening scenes establishing this are nicely done. I like how your film accentuates this by showing a stone-faced Davis prepare for Julia’s funeral through a montage of swift, silent scenes that flow like a PowerPoint presentation.
This is a man clearly going through the motions, the loss of his wife having the same emotional resonance as a misplaced book or an unexpected thunderstorm. In one memorable scene, he contorts his face in a mirror, desperate to put on an acceptable “grieving” face for the world.
After a brief mishap while trying to buy candy at the hospital, however, Davis writes a letter of complaint, frustrated with the vending machine company. These letters, however, soon turn into the most personal, heartfelt complaint letters in the world, as our man uses them to express what’s on his mind.
These letters attract the attention of Karen (Naomi Watts), the company’s customer service person. She’s a woman also dealing with a multitude of problems, including an unsatisying marriage. She and Davis soon bond, and discover that to begin anew, you sometimes have to completely destroy what you once had. The two soon indulge in whimsical behaviour as they try to make sense of their lives.
And now, the bad. Your movie drags a lot: many of Davis’s attempts at change feel very samey, or come across as quirky for the sake of being quirky. Countless scenes of all this make me wonder what’s the point of all this, if this movie is just an excuse to get Gyllenhaal to do crazy things on camera.
The characters also sometimes grate on the nerves, and it is hard to sustain interest in them. Some of the stuff Davis does is extremely irresponsible, particularly when they involve other people. Davis can be borderline stalker-ish and completely unlikeable, and if not for Gyllenhaal’s charisma, would probably put off most viewers early on.
Some of the wisdom dispensed in his complaint letters also comes across as extremely pretentious, even more so when your film treats them as life-changing advice. “Everything has become a metaphor,” goes one of the film’s lines, resulting in a lot of symbolism – some of it very heavy-handed. Yes, we get that Davis is trying to take apart his life to fix it. We didn’t really need SEVERAL scenes of him literally taking items apart, Sylar-from-Heroes style, to illustrate this.
Let me commend your cast, though. Watts and Cooper are both solid, and Judah Lewis really puts up a hell of a performance as Chris, Karen’s rebellious son. I look forward to seeing more from him in future.
Gyllenhaal, of course, is impeccable as always, watchable whether indulging in gleeful antics or contemplating the emptiness of his life. Watching him destroy stuff with a sledgehammer is exhilarating and, dare I say, slightly erotic. My only complaint about him is that his name is very hard to spell and always sets off my Spellcheck.
All in all, your film is mostly enjoyable, and does feature a cool soundtrack. A shame about the meandering plot and half-baked messages. I would like to ask that you get rid of them in whatever way possible. Might I suggest, through “demolition”? (Just my little joke.)
I wish you all the best and look forward to your next film,
Your faithful reviewer.