Demolition: Jean-Marc Vallee’s Drama, Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Naomi Watts, and Judah Lewis

Canadian-born filmmaker Jean-Marc Vallée, who had directed the Oscar-winning Dallas Buyers Club and the Oscar nominated Wild, follows up these estimable films with Demolition, an overwrought, incoherent and ultimately sentimental tale.

As a genre, the film belongs to the genre of coming to terms with grief and loss, except that the journey here and especially its solution is preposterous.

Gyllenhaal plays financial hotshot David, who reacts to the sudden death of his wife by taking up demolition–literally and symbolically.  Angry, he lets steam off by physically destroying all of his appliances, at his office (computer) and at his luxurious home, which he bulldozes to the ground.  You see, here is a man who needs to dismantle the remnants of what was  once a seemingly happy (even perfect) life.

Even so, the acting of the two leads, Jake Gyllenhaal and Naomi Watts, is superb, though as valiantly as they try, they cannot resolve the picture’s shortcomings in narrative structure, characterization (all clichés), and ending (soupy and schmaltzy).

Russ Smith recalls, “While Jean-Marc Vallée was shooting Wild, we began to get calls about Jake Gyllenhaal – a terrific actor who seems to get better with every movie, and he fit this film beautifully.  He and Jean-Marc fell for each other immediately and we were off to the races.”

Also needed was a strong actor to play Karen’s son and after a long search found Judah Lewis: “Jean-Marc saw many kids with our great casting directors in New York, but we actually found Judah on tape – he’s electric on camera and reminds you of a young Leonardo DiCaprio – he’s just a star. And, he’s got a beautiful face. But it’s also his spirit – he’s just really talented at such a young age.”

Vallée was impressed with the cast’s performances and how they worked with him to develop their scenes.  “Jake and Naomi have a natural chemistry. They’re like kids playing,” reflects Jean-Marc. “They’re so comfortable with acting, the way they react to each other and their love of the material and characters. The perfect example of this is the scene where they are making a couch ‘fort’ and they put a blanket over the cushions and they’re inside with flashlights and having fun. They had space to have fun and create and change their voices and make shadow puppets with a flashlight…and it was beautiful and amazing.

“Jake brought everything to this role that was so challenging and demanding in practice. In theory, on the page, that’s one thing. But on the set, when it comes the time to portray Davis Mitchell, how does one play this guy who pretends to feel nothing?  Everything had to be subtle, fine and balanced. And in order to do that, one has to not be afraid of exploring tons of stuff. That is Jake, the actor who is not afraid of trying stuff. I can’t say enough about his performance. The physicality of the role, the emotional range, always ready to ad lib, try something new and different, taking chances, risks, going sometimes over the top, bringing it back, holding it back, singing, dancing… there is nothing he didn’t try on the set of DEMOLITION. It was a total blast to witness,” says Vallée

Gyllenhaal’s performance received high praise from Watts: “He’s a wonderful actor.  I had a great experience working with him. We’re such an odd coupling that you wouldn’t have thought right away that we were supposed to end up in a movie or in some sort of relationship.  But that’s what I love about it.  It’s odd and awkward and it’s not always about the obvious choices.”

Young actor Judah Lewis found working with Gyllenhaal to be inspiring. Their on- screen moments are filled with raw emotion and Jake’s lessons proved invaluable to Lewis. “It’s really cool for me to work with somebody with that much experience, sometimes we’d be in the middle of a scene and he’d do a line a certain way and it’s so cool because that’s what the scene needed,” explains Lewis. “It’s really interesting to see the journey of all these different characters and how we develop and how we kind of find ourselves.”  Gyllenhaal found Judah to be “…kind of wonderfully irreverent. He’s sort of bold in this way and walks in with a confidence…and that was comforting to me on set. And, I think his performance is beautiful.”

“Judah Lewis was a revelation in the role of Chris, Karen’s son. That kid is a rock star. So gifted and yet so young. A natural,” say Vallée.

Gyllenhaal says of Watts, “Naomi is so aware and engaged and game to go anywhere. That’s an exciting feeling and a scary one.  But, I guess that’s also the way Davis should feel about Karen. She’s someone who is a figure in his imagination until she’s not – until she’s right there in front of him – demanding truth and shaking up his whole world.”

Judah remembers specific moments with Naomi, as well. In his words, “She was really great to work with because she’s a brilliant actress, you can tell that she is just in the moment and feeling what the character is feeling and acting as that character would. It was a true honor to work with her and I really hope I get to again.”

“Naomi Watts brought a rebellious tenderness to this role of a single mother in Queens, questioning her own life while trying to help her new friend, Davis,” says Vallée.  “It was a difficult and nuanced role that she played with such humanity and humility but yet, it was a complex one in her desire to seduce without seducing, and to try to be a mother that does the right thing.”

Reuniting with Chris Cooper

Gyllenhaal was also very excited to reunite with co-star Chris Cooper.  As he explains, “In one of the first movies I ever did when I was 16 (OCTOBER SKY), Chris Cooper played my dad. I also worked with him on a movie called JARHEAD. So, DEMOLITION was really an opportunity to come back after all that time and work with an actor that I have admired.  To continue to be with him now as an adult, with more tools in my belt, to work with someone who’s an expert like him, was an honor.”

“Chris Cooper was fantastic in the role of Phil. A real pro, so in control of his art and at the same time, so emotional and vulnerable,” says Vallée. “He was tough when he needed to be and equally tender when he had to.”