2 Stars – Troubling
Complications of grief are seldom as troubled as we see in the life of Davis (Jake Gyllenhaal) in the film Demolition. Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée and based on a screenplay by Brian Sype, the film lacks any person of character, compassion or understanding beyond a self-absorbed and hopeless experience of life. This deficit creates, exacerbates and twists the grief we witness.
Davis is an extremely self-absorbed man who doesn’t know how to love. Painfully honest but lacking self-awareness or awareness of others, he expresses a general numbness for over a dozen years. So when his wife Julia (Heather Lind) is killed in an automobile accident, he cannot feel either pain or grief. When he tries to purchase candy from a machine at the hospital and the machine malfunctions, Davis uses that breakdown to voice his own personal malfunction and he expresses his emotional breakdown by writing reimbursement requests to the vending company. Obsessing on a statement his father-in-law Phil (Chris Cooper) makes about the necessity to take things apart in order to rebuild them, he begins to demolish everything in his life – from his leaking refrigerator to his now empty house.
The receiver of the letters at the vending company is Karen (Naomi Watts). Karen is herself a malfunctioning person who is in a relationship with someone she does not love and is struggling with her troubled fifteen-year-old son Chris (Judah Lewis). Inappropriately inserting herself into Davis’ life and allowing her son to join his own troubles with Davis’ twisted grief, the story moves into a destructive attempt to deconstruct, build and rebuild their lives.
The truth that grief is more complicated when the relationship is struggling is seen in a variety of ways we will not spoil by revealing the plot developments. However, it is helpful to understand that spiritual and emotional resources are necessary when loss is experienced. The fact that Davis has neither in his life is painfully presented. He has no close friends or family support, including from his own parents or the parents of his deceased wife.
Similarly, the emptiness of Karen’s life and her addiction to pot is presented as an aspect of her life but without recognition of the implications and complications such life choices have caused her and her son. Although there are other factors that impact their lives, it is difficult to watch these people in so much pain.
Perhaps as artists observe the nihilistic movement of our self-destructive society, we will see more of these types of films presenting its impact. This rejection of larger religious and moral values and accepting the meaninglessness of such a nihilistic life is revealed in its destruction in this appropriately titled film: Demolition.
- The lack of personal responsibility by the adults in the film extends to their lack of care for children. Did you find Karen’s lack of care for her son disturbing or appropriate for his age? Why?
- Did you think Jake was a positive or negative influence on Chris? Why?
- How did Jake and Chris seem similar in their emotional development or lack thereof? How did this influence of parents on their children extend to Julia and her parents?
- The attempt to make Julia’s death meaningful by starting a scholarship foundation in her name is undermined by the presentation of the young recipient as being himself an addict to pot with a lecherous disregard for women. Why do you think the story took away even this attempt to provide some meaning from the viewers?
- When Davis claims at the end of the film to have loved Julia, do you accept that as a true self-revelation, or a continuing lack of self-understanding? Why?
- The decision to make the young teenager Chris a gay person who is brutally beaten by a group of peers to which he revealed himself could be seen as almost cliché or gratuitous. Do you think this plot development and its violence added or detracted from the film? Why do you answer as you do?