There is a fine-looking grandfather clock that contributes a witty cameo to Demolition, the latest Hollywood feature from Quebec director Jean-Marc Vallée. A family heirloom, it decorates the otherwise starkly modern office of a Wall Street financier who is giving the clock increasingly apprehensive glances. He is afraid that his erratic son-in-law may dismantle it piece by piece, reducing the antique to a heap of useless parts.
The son-in-law is Davis, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, and he can perhaps be forgiven his odd behaviour because his wife has just died in a car accident. He seems to suffer some inability to feel any of the correct sentiments over this loss and becomes obsessed, first with writing letters of complaint after a hospital vending machine fails to produce his candy, and then with taking things apart – to the point of demolition.
Davis works for his father-in-law's billion-dollar investment company and, as he tells a doctor to whom he complains of numbness in the entire area of his head and torso, he has been feeling a certain lack of sensation for about 10 years now. As long as you are willing to accept that any one who works on Wall Street is necessarily soulless, the film's amusingly exaggerated allegory of alienation, grief and breakdown produces one delicious scene after another, as Davis progresses from dismantling the leaking fridge his late wife had asked him to fix to volunteering on a wrecking crew.
Both Vallée's direction – the flashback scenes to Davis's marriage and the depiction of his mental images during crisis are particularly imaginative and effective – and the finely tuned flatness of Gyllenhaal's performance make the film initially irresistible.
Chris Cooper's work as Phil, the father-in-law, is also excellent, creating a hardened bastard who genuinely loved his daughter and is heartbroken over her death, in many ways a more realistic combination of good and evil than the amoral Davis.
The film moves smoothly toward Davis's encounter with Karen (Naomi Watts), another misfit who's responsible for customer service at the vending company and more importantly with her young adolescent son, Chris. The teen is a more conventionally alienated figure than Davis – an impressive Judah Lewis makes his pubescent confusion touching – but they have a lot in common. A scene where, as they go shopping for sledgehammers, the boy asks the man what he should do if he thinks he is gay is a perfectly wrought little moment, poignant, funny and frightening.
The trouble here is that neither Bryan Sipe, who wrote this highly original script, nor Vallée, remain true to the bitter whimsy with which they began. A chance encounter with Karen's drug dealer and his antique merry-go-round and an improbably violent crisis with young Chris prove Davis's redemption, and the movie, which has by now unfortunately cast off Watts's interesting work on the rebellious Karen, ends sentimentally.
If this merely mars but does not ruin Demolition it is mainly because Gyllenhaal's performance is so engaging, so successfully constructed to make us sympathize with the man's anti-social reactions to convention, even while we may understand everyone else's bemusement. When he finally cracks a smile you are charmed and relieved for him rather than disappointed that a wild ride has just turned down a very familiar street. Still, if that grandfather clock hovered in a darkly comic way, the merry-go-round proves to be nothing but schmaltz.