#TIFF15: Demolition deconstructs grief with heart

The Toronto International Film Festival opened with Jean-Marc Vallée’s off-beat drama starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Naomi Watts


Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée. Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Naomi Watts, Chris Cooper, Judah Lewis. 

Jean-Marc Vallée’s opening night movie befuddled some critics here in Toronto, but I fell in love with this movie about an investment banker who unravels in the wake of a personal tragedy — if only because I had no idea how it would end. Anyone who reads the synopsis of Brian Sipe’s screenplay knows how it begins: Davis Mitchell (Jake Gyllenhaal) is in the car with his wife arguing over a leaky refrigerator when the random force of fate T-bones their vehicle. His wife is killed, but Davis escapes without so much as a scratch. On the surface he is whole, but beneath the shiny exterior, he is shattered — and it’s this dissonance that powers the whole off-beat drama.


How could an external reality and an internal truth be so at odds? Davis becomes obsessed with exposing the gears and cogs that make us tick — quite literally — as he starts dismantling every object around him. First, it’s the leaky fridge, then the squeaky bathroom stalls at work, then the entire dream house he and his wife called home.


Davis is desperate to understand how things work, but he’s incapable of putting things back together, and that’s the big metaphor standing at the centre of Sipe’s surprisingly funny, and predictably moving screenplay.


Vallée (C.R.A.Z.Y) has a knack for creating vibrantly fragmented narratives that challenge as much they entertain, and his impressionistic approach serves the film well as we are forced to assemble the pieces of personal identity for ourselves — without the aid of a toolkit.


Gyllenhaal is brave enough to keep us at arm’s length by doing unsympathetic things and Watts proves enchanting as the pothead customer service agent with a teenage son, but it’s Chris Cooper and newcomer Judah Lewis who make the strongest impressions as the grieving father and the teenage son, respectively. Their performances provide the rich emotional sounding board for the two leads, making the sense of fragmentation feel more urgent as they struggle to find their new selves amid the wreckage.


Smart, funny, surprising and confident enough to lay off the melodramatic horn, Demolition is well-constructed chaos that speaks to the existential condition with heart.


Katherine Monk



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