It’s difficult for any film to convey a singular emotion, let alone one as complicated as grief in the face of death. The experience is ineffable; it’s blurry, messy, fluid. The feeling of it is unique to all of us and there is literally no right way to go through it. So encapsulating that on-screen can create something manic, raw, and unpolished. It can come across more like a rough sketch than a finished painting…and in a lot of ways, that’s fitting.
Davis Mitchell (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a Wall Street trader who loses his wife in a car crash moments after DEMOLITION begins. Her death sends him adrift, leaving him with no map or compass on how to navigate the grieving process. His boss and father in law, Phil (Chris Cooper) tries to help him through it…but when Davis returns to work just days after his wife’s funeral, it’s clear that he’s not mourning so much as he is trying to keep himself distracted.
His first form of coping comes by way of sending letters to a vending machine company that malfunctioned in the hospital where his wife was treated after the accident…letters that quickly become soul searchingly honest. This eventually prompts a personal response from the customer service rep, Karen (Naomi Watts), and the two begin an unusual relationship.
The second form of coping comes from his growing fascination with disassembling or violently destroying things around him to unleash a violent release and perhaps understand them better. This want to tear down even endears him to Karen’s son Chris (Judah Lewis).
It’s in this destructive state that Davis lingers for much of the movie, as he tries to pull the pieces of his life apart…and perhaps then understand how to put them back together.
I truly believe that in less capable hands, the blunt force of this film’s core metaphor would prove too much after an act or two. Without the deft touch that Vallée, and Gyllenhaal bring to Bryan Sipe’s script, the central conceit that we can only get to the root of a problem by tearing it completely apart would have felt literal, forced, and heavy-handed However, all of the artists that have come together to tell this tale have brought the deftest of touches. They have approached it like a grieving friend and done their best to understand the very real unrest going on in Davis’ life.
DEMOLITION understands that it’s not enough for us to wallow in Davis’ misery…it has to be peppered with absurdity, empathy, and pure joy. Only then do we get past a story about a guy who likes to break stuff, and get a sliver of an idea of just how mixed-up one feels in the face of true loss.
As the Friday morning screening of DEMOLITION got under way, Vallée declared it “the most rock & roll movie (he’s) ever made”. If you know the man’s work, you know how lofty a claim that is…but the idea isn’t as c.r.a.z.y. as it sounds. The concept goes beyond the soundtrack (which is bangin’, by the way). It speaks to the manic energy Gyllenhaal delivers in his performance, and the moments of catharsis within the story and the way they evoke those that come when a song full of joy comes on.
The film wants us to get inside of our speakers and headphones, and choose the music to help us get an emotional grip. It wants us to find it in the lows of the bassline. Once we’re there, it wants us to eventually find our way to the skies, where the highs of a guitar’s squealing E chord soars high above it all.
DEMOLITION wants us to choose the music to destroy to…and then destroy the music too.