15 years ago, in the immediate wake of 9/11, Donnie Darko was sheepishly ushered in and out of theaters, earning critical acclaim though not an audience. By the summer of 2002, Donnie Darko had found its cult. That summer, people were passing around the DVD, and talking about the film in colleges and high schools around the country. Prior to Donnie Darko, Jake Gyllenhaal had been the lead in the undernoticed space-age family film, October Sky, but it was his turn as Donnie that rocketed him to fame. Sometimes, it’s hard to shake your past.
Donnie Darko is a high school coming of age film recast as a Vonnegut-style science fiction story about a moody and disturbed boy who can’t deal with his existence. The exact beats of the story are shrouded in mystery with no two audiences ever deciding on what exactly happened, which actually improves the movie to its original fans who felt that the ambiguity actually fits with the lurid romanticism of growing up as an outsider. Donnie is a young man who suffers from some mood disorder, perhaps schizophrenic paranoia, and manifests his struggles with rampant destruction, burning down a house and flooding a school. All of his emotions are guarded by wall after wall, even remaining a mystery to his girlfriend. At the end of Donnie Darko, Donnie witnesses his girlfriend, Gretchen (Jena Malone), get murdered in a horrific car accident, and then…possibly imagines him undoing the previous month of activity through a fit of time-rip suicide?
What would have happened to Donnie Darko if he had grown up? Maybe he would have turned into Davis Mitchell, a Wall Street executive who is completely shut off from himself, his wife, her parents, his parents, his life, the world…everything. He’s built a very careful construction of the ideal life: a beautiful wife, an expensive home, expensive cars, and is on track to becoming a partner at the financial firm owned by his wife’s father. It’s the kind of life idealized in the 1980s, minus children. When Davis and his wife are involved in a horrific car accident that kills her but leaves him unharmed, his whole world unravels in the wake of the trauma.
At the heart of Demolition is the question: how do damaged men grieve? In their final conversation, Davis’ wife asked him to finally fix the leaking refrigerator. Davis doesn’t think he has the tools to do the job. After her death, he starts dismantling things that need to be fixed, but never takes the time to repair them. He just further destroys things as an urge in the hope that they’ll be fixed. Then he dismantles things that just need destroying. Eventually, he pays a demolition crew to join and help destroy homes as a way to feel…something. He does this instead of working at his job, dealing with his wife’s grieving parents, and just sets about destroying to try to make sense of everything.
The B-story of Demolition is where things take a wrong turn. Immediately after Davis is informed of his wife’s death, a vending machine in the ICU denies him the purchased candy. Instead of destroying the machine, Davis starts an epistolery letter writing campaign explaining his past life, and the revelations he has as they come up (think About Schmidt or Manglehorn). But, then he gets a 2am call from Karen (Naomi Watts), the pot-addled overly-sensitive single mother Customer Service Representative who gets involved with Davis’ recovery…but just as a friend. Davis takes a detour into Karen’s life, including her rebellious goth-punk genderqueer sexuality-questioning teenager, Carl (C.J. Wilson), who seems like an update on the kinds of kids who fell in love with Donnie Darko 15 years ago.
Though the connections to Donnie Darko are rampant, this is very much the work of a more literal-minded writer and director. Richard Kelly is obsessed with interconnection, lurid romanticism, genre storytelling, and visualizing a new experience through a kaleidoscope of lenses. Writer Bryan Sipe and director Jean-Marc Vallee (Wild, Dallas Buyers Club) are much more simple minded than that. Any hallucinatory aspects of the film are explained away in an all too contrived reality. Take the introduction of Karen. Karen and Davis cycle each other’s orbits so vaguely for awhile that it almost seems like Karen is actually a hallucination…until she breaks into the movie with her indie movie set of quirks and drama. Sometimes those contrivances develop into wonderful scenes that you couldn’t have made it to any other way, but often they’re just a house of cards.
The shame of it is that Vallee is a strong director, and the performances are spot on. Naomi Watts does what she can with a role that has few parts to it. Chris Cooper does his grieving father thing, and C.J. is kind of great at his disaffected angry angsty teen as seen by adults thing. Jake Gyllenhall even does his disaffected Wall Street Executive who may or may not be repressing emotions thing well. But, it’s the script that needed a few more polishes, and a rewrite of the third act, that almost dismantles the whole film.
Also, if I may, why is this such a white experience? Why couldn’t Naomi Watts have been a black woman with a gay black son reaching out to a damaged soul? Why couldn’t the owner of the vending company been a Latino instead of a white dude? I know I’m sounding like a broken record on this (see also, Midnight Special), but why are the only people of color given like 3-5 lines each in the whole movie? It’s really frustrating. Though, Gregory Haney steals his scene as the probably-underpaid nurse who doesn’t give a shit if this Wall Street asshole was denied his candy.
Anyways, the first two acts are worth the price of admission where even the shakier parts bear fruit that excuse their shakiness. As a piece of unintentional (or maybe completely intentional) Donnie Darko fan fiction, Demolition brings an entirely welcome perspective to the emotionally damaged, privileged, white male character. It’s different enough to be new, but it’s still comes with a lot of indie movie faults that a stronger writer or director would have noticed.