Jean-Marc Vallée's Demolition presents an interesting experiment: What if you told a story of tragedy but withheld all the tenderness and emotion from it, so that you were left -- at least until the very end -- with just literal and figurative wreckage, disconnected fragments seeking to be put back together? Believe it or not, that idea might be what saves Demolition, which is otherwise a facile story of a man alienated from his life. But it can be hard to watch, too, and not always in a good way.
"Repairing the human heart is like repairing an automobile," investment banker Davis (Jake Gyllenhaal) is told after the death of his wife. And so he starts to take apart the things in his life that aren't working properly: a leaking fridge, a creaky bathroom door. Pretty soon, he's graduated to bigger projects: Seeing a work crew demolishing a house, he asks to join in, and he soon relishes taking giant hammers to walls. It's not random; it mirrors Davis' own journey. He has to break down his life and rebuild it in order to feel something, and it's hard not to sense that Vallée and screenwriter Bryan Sipe are doing the same thing with their film, presenting pieces in search of a whole.
There's somehow always a single mother involved in these stories of a man's self-discovery, so into Davis' life comes Karen Moreno (Naomi Watts), the customer-service rep for the vending-machine company. While these fragments don't all quite come together, Demolition does close out with a series of emotional bursts that have an undeniable cumulative power and retroactively justify its hesitant, disconnected quality. Amazingly, if awkwardly, the experiment works.