Director Jean-Marc Vallee’s film, Demolition, stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Davis Mitchell, a man who tragically loses his wife in a sudden car accident. If you haven’t seen the film, Demolition is a must-watch to understand the subtleties of this post and, more so, the intricacies of Davis’ reaction. This is a film about a man’s difficulty feeling grief and what it takes for him to finally get there.
Clearly – Davis has a troubled response to the loss of his wife, Julia (Heather Lind). He feels nothing. He tells the doctor he’s numb and, in his daydream, his diagnosis is this: part of his heart is missing. Why he has such a serious problem with the feeling we aren’t given much information about – except for his dad’s warning about the gypsy moths. There’s no doubt that something has been eating away at Davis for a long time.
The problem can’t be just that he wasn’t a fast enough runner as a kid, leaving him with insecurities, never feeling good enough. There must be something earlier that made love and attachment a less than safe idea. Perhaps, he experienced his mother’s feelings as intrusive. She’s openly, yet anxiously, emotional, while his father is as detached as Davis. It wouldn’t be a far stretch to substitute, for the gypsy moths, a warning to watch out – or “feelings” might overtake him.
Running From His Feelings
It’s unlikely Davis had any help with his feelings as a child, and we see the psychological results. A psychic retreat of numbness; defensive walls that must be broken down before his dissociated feelings drive him completely crazy; and displaced hungers (AKA the peanut M & M’s he tries but fails to buy in a hospital vending machine right after he’s told that Julia is gone). Young Chris (Judah Lewis), himself with a troubled mother who uses marijuana to manage her own feelings, is angry, socially isolated, confused, and afraid to be himself. He’s a part of Davis and Davis must come face to face with him for any chance at grief.
On first glance, Davis’ mission of demolition and destruction might seem a mission of anti-grief. He is certainly fighting his sadness. But I actually think Davis’ real battle in the film is to break down the defensive walls he’s constructed so that he can feel. As he says to Phil (Chris Cooper), his father-in-law, at the end of the film: “There was love between us. I just didn’t take care of it.” He didn’t know how to let love in.
What we do know is that Davis is shut down, distracted, and emotionally detached. His mom “can’t get a hold of him.” Either could Julia. He’s absent; he lives in a sterile, monochromatic, boxed-in world. This sterile place is his house. It’s the marriage he unconsciously created. But it’s also a defensive organization barring access to his internal life – not so different than the quickly passing image we see on the TV as he lies alone in bed after Julia’s death; Neanderthal-looking monkeys, covered in snow, living in a frozen land.
We get a better idea of how Davis handles need and loss at the airport when his parents board their plane to go home after Julia’s funeral (where he also shows no feeling). He watches travelers coming and going and thinks to himself: “What is in those suitcases that people can’t do without for 4 days?” Davis, on the other hand, can do without anyone. He can do without his parents. He can do without Julia.
Still in the airport, he has a hallucinatory fantasy of taking a National Guardsman’s gun and pointing it at people while they run, terrified. Davis drives people away. When he gets anywhere near a feeling (of love or loss or need), he stops it in its tracks, quite like pulling the Emergency cord on the commuter train; grinding it to a halt. He’ll feel nothing and he’ll need no one.
Yet, somewhere inside Davis – perhaps stirred deep in the recesses of his mind by Julia’s death – he’s hungry for something. Hence, his attempt to buy peanut M & M’s in the Champion Vending Company’s Machine # 714 at St. Anthony Hospital’s ICU after he’s informed that Julia is gone. The machine, however, malfunctions. Nothing comes out.
Perhaps he’s hungry for love and doesn’t know it. He’s certainly hungry to talk but from a distance. In his in-laws study, withdrawn from the people gathering after his wife’s burial, he writes his first long rambling letter to Customer Service about his poor vending experience. He ends the letter: “I think you deserve the whole story.” Davis doesn’t know the whole story himself.
A professional would be helpful. But Davis instead begins a heart-to-heart conversation by letter, with the Customer Service Department, which turns out to be Karen Moreno (Naomi Watts). A friendship develops and opens both of them up. The real vehicle for change is Davis’ relationship with Karen’s son.
Tearing Down Walls
It’s not easy for Davis to break through his numbness. His father-in-law gives him advice: “You have to take everything apart to figure out what’s important … Repairing the human heart is like repairing an automobile. Take everything apart, examine it, then you can put it back together again.”
The human heart can’t be taken apart clinically, though. It’s delicate and has to be safe to feel. Impossibly isolated and alone, Davis either leaves the disassembled pieces and quickly moves on – or dumps them on the floor not knowing what to do with them. Getting help isn’t an option.
The problem is his persistent denial of emotional need. We see it in Karen’s son Chris, too, a kid who uses “fuck” too much, all toughness to cover up his confusion and vulnerability. When Davis finds Chris pointing Carl’s gun at his head, with a bull’s eye painted on the mirror in his mother’s lipstick, Davis takes Chris under his wing. They both have a few things to work out.
Together, they buy “tools of destruction and devastation,” demolish the walls of Davis’ house; shatter windows and open things up. Davis thinks: “We’re taking apart my marriage.” Really – he’s bringing down the walls of the “shiny” exterior he’s painted; breaking out of the trap of his sterile life with its housing of steel numbness, where he lost part of his heart. And, he’s not doing it alone.
Grief in Demolition
Davis told Karen that, as a boy, he wanted to run fast more than anything. And he has been: running fast away from his feelings and, now, his grief. Images of Julia have been haunting Davis since her death … in the mirror when he gets out of the shower, on the beach in her coat, the two of them standing side by side in a disconnected way. Gradually, as Davis dismantles the cold casing he lives in, he gets closer to memories of love.
And – who the fuck drives a station wagon? It’s the man who hit their car and accidentally killed his wife. But, we might say he’s also the emotionally careless and detached part of Davis that drove Julia into the arms of another man. As the film unfolds and Davis begins to break out of his hardened shell, he meets this side of himself little by little. In the end, they are standing together at Julia’s grave – a man who now feels grief, regret, and guilt. And, Davis, finally, can cry. When he runs faster than the “other boys” as Demolition comes to a close, we might consider it a sign, not of craziness or competition, but of newfound freedom to live.