To truly understand something, you must take it apart and see what it is made from.
This is the philosophy used in Jean-Marc Vallee’s Demolition. A film about a man who is detached from the world, whose little vacant life is blown to smithereens after his wife is killed in a car accident. In order to come to terms with his life after her death, he must take his life apart in order to understand and appreciate it.
The shot and editing style of this film is very naturalistic and basic, which fits in well with the films’ in depth yet subtle tone, exploring the nature of grief. This idea of subtlety is further used in the films’ editing, as Davis’ (Jake Gyllenhaal) deceased wife Julia appears in reflections throughout the film – in water, glass, or reflected off of the many shiny surfaces in their once shared home.
Davis is detached from her death, and from the idea of Julia. He seems uninterested in his In-Laws, and becomes quickly attached to Karen, the customer services representative of a Vending company that he sent a complaint letter to after Julia’s passing. These odd behaviours, added with the honest statement he makes about not really being that sad about her death, makes us feel as detached to him as he does to her.
Davis narrates to us throughout, and in addition to this, writes letters to Karen, explaining parts of his life and compartmentalising his relationships and feelings about the normality of his existence. The film uses letters as a way of conveying truth – as he writes to Karen, and later Karen writes a letter to her son Chris.
In addition to the reflection appearances, there are many times in the film that Davis has recollections of memories with Julia. These flashbacks are filmed romantically, and the warmth that exudes from them feels out of place, juxtaposing the cold way that he talks about his marriage to Karen and Carl, the train acquaintance. The reason for this becomes clear at the films’ close, as Davis comes to terms with his grief, making these shots in hindsight, beautiful and heartfelt.
This confusion that Davis has in his head is partly due to his detachment from life and his inability to feel anything real, and when this reacts with his sharply honest personality trait, creates a time bomb that the film watches closely up to Davis’ detonation.
This detonation comes when Davis begins a new obsession – taking things apart, to see what’s inside. He rips apart his fridge, his work computer, and a bathroom stall, laying each nail, bolt and part neatly on the floor – before later smashing up his entire house. This is a way of dealing with grief and a chance for him to take apart his life in order to start again.
This new ‘hobby’, alongside his growing relationships with Karen and her troubled teenage son Chris, helps him to learn how to feel, through ‘paying attention’, something he has been unable to do until now. He pays attention to young Chris, who is in desperate need of guidance, and Karen, who is unhappy with the life she has chosen. These new relationships that Davis forms reward him with a new understanding of his own life and his relationship with Julia before her death.
The films’ sound, pre-Karen, is void of artificial sound or music. This quietness, juxtaposed with the music that Chris helps him to appreciate, brightens the second half of the film as Davis begins to understand himself and his surroundings.
Demolition is intelligent, quirky, and intensively descriptive in exploring loneliness and pain, as two lost souls work together to feel something in a world that has been cruel to them. A film that sadly, will likely be swept under the carpet, when it should be held in the same esteem as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Silver Linings Playbook or the like.