Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Naomi Watts, Chris Cooper, Judah Lewis, C.J. Wilson, Polly Draper, Heather Lind
Director of Photography: Yves Bélanger
Edited by Jay M. Glen
Written by Bryan Sipes
Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée
Rating: 8 out of 10
Feeling detached from your emotions is so common in our culture that it is rarely noticed or discussed unless there is some event where an emotional reaction is expected. If people aren’t heart-broken after a breakup or aren’t cheering for their national sports team or don’t feel guilty after hurting someone, then heads are scratched and we say “What’s wrong with her?” But generally we have accepted detachment as a familiar state of mind. “You feel numb? Well, who doesn’t”
Demolition explores the idea of detachment by putting its main character Davis (Jake Gyllenhaal) into a tragic situation and having him not react in any way like everyone expects him to. A big part of the movie’s success comes from Gyllenhaal’s ability to portray detached characters so well (especially spectacular in Nightcrawler) but also being able to show progressing towards an emotional balance. But the question that the movie poses but not satisfyingly answers is if Davis will ever really be able to embrace his emotions or if he is too detached at its core to ever really feel something as essential as love.
In the movie’s first scene, Davis and his wife Julia (Heather Lind) sit in a car and have a conversation that many married couples probably have. She wants him to fix something in the house that he isn’t even aware of, she blames him for not listening while he stares out of the window, watching New York’s skyline. He seems absent and only a joke that stems from the couple’s past pulls him back for a moment before tragedy hits them.
If you know anything about the movie, it shouldn’t be a spoiler (watch out, spoiler!) that Julia dies in a car crash, while Davis gets out without a scratch. Detachment now comes to the surface in two ways: first, Davis doesn’t seem to be mourning at all, which the people around him first don’t even notice but then unsettles them, most of it all Julia’s father (Chris Cooper). Initially, he sort of admires Davis’ detachment as a sign of “strength” but later contradicts his own statement by blaming Davis for not showing the right emotions. He symbolizes our culture’s conflicted ideas about emotions where it’s masculine to seem tough and to not let your emotions guide your actions but moving on too quickly also doesn’t fit the playbook for deaths in the family.
Second, Davis realizes something most people never admit to themselves: he had probably never loved his wife. That realization is also a realization of a life living in emotional self-isolation, a reflection upon a decision Davis has made. It is like a shock to him and he doesn’t know how to deal with it. He never set out to become this detached and when his feelings now start to come back, they overwhelm him. The movie finds countless ways to visualize Davis’ numbness: we see him practicing to cry in a bathroom, him going to a doctor to help him with his lack of emotions (which has a funny pay-off) or pulling the emergency break when someone asks him how he feels. It is also made clear that what was special about Julia, was her wide emotional range which must have seemed alien to Davis.
The realization of a detached life leads to Davis being more curious and looking at things in a different way. He starts seeing the superficiality of everything, claiming at one point that “everything has become a metaphor.” What he decides to do at some point is the only thing that works against our culture – he starts looking under the surface of things. That essentially becomes the movie’s titular theme, as destruction becomes a process of creation. Davis takes things apart to see how they work. But machines are of course easier to understand than human beings.
One reason why the ending is a slight disappointment is not only that it relies on exactly the stereotypes the movie mostly managed to avoid up to this point. It comes also from the fact that the ending implies that Davis now has found his emotions again, as a typical happy ending would necessitate. But again and again the movie implies that despite his new relationships to Karen (Naomi Watts) and her son Chris (Judah Lewis), Davis still hasn’t really gotten back to his emotional core. There is the moment where Chris manually helps Davis to smile or the awkward scene at the graveyard where Davis is not as empathic as you’d expect. Seeing him all smiles and happiness at the end betrays the movie’s intriguing premise of a life lived in numbness. The resolution seems too easy.
There is something else that bothered me although it is more a cultural problem than really the movie’s fault. At one point Karen says, she’d also like to “afford” the truth, meaning that Davis, with all his wealth, has it relatively easy to change his life around and to act “crazy” for as long as he likes. It is a common trope, just as Lester Burnham in American Beauty can only fulfill his desires after he frames his boss for lots of money. It is easy to comment on everyone’s hypocrisy when you don’t have bills to pay. Our culture doesn’t give us that space unless we have financial freedom.
But apart from that, the movie succeeds in a portrayal of someone who slowly tries to escape many of our culture’s trappings. A culture, that in the movie’s portrayal, is only a shiny surface whose reflections we rarely want to consider. Looking at and eventually under that surface is the movie’s strongest theme and important enough to resonate with anyone who has pondered similar questions.