“She always said I didn’t pay attention”
Sometimes we can’t realize we’ve taken the easy road until it’s too late. It’s crass to say, but Davis Mitchell (Jake Gyllenhaal) was lucky to have been abruptly slapped awake when he was. The unfortunate side effect of his rebirth from the doldrums of routine and convenience: the life of his wife Julia (Heather Lind). Suddenly she wasn’t there to smile at him or leave a Post-It note asking for a chore to be done and he’s inexplicably apathetic towards that truth. Not only that, he realizes he doesn’t know who he is. Does he need to shave his face every morning? Should he be crying like the rest? Does the fact he can’t question whether or not he even loved the woman he promised to forever?
It’s interesting to learn Demolition‘s screenwriter Bryan Spie wrote the script due to apathy towards work. Rather than a deceased wife, Spie found himself lost and uncaring because he had nothing to say. Davis’ investment banker feels similarly about his own job—the film isn’t solely about dismantling his private life. Everything must get torn to the ground and stripped bare. That includes his very heart and soul. Gone are societal niceties and half-truths manufactured to avoid confrontation. Gone are the airs of material status symbols he never liked or understood. It’s finally time to be Davis Mitchell. Not the one Julia fell for or the one her father Phil (Chris Cooper) groomed to excel within his company. The real Davis Mitchell has only just opened his eyes.
Director Jean-Marc Vallée and Gyllenhaal therefore find themselves facing the great unknown. Davis’ journey is one of pain and suffering buried deep beneath a cloud of confusion. He cannot mourn Julia because he hasn’t been present enough to remember what there is to miss. Fading glimpses of her in the mirror are less longing and more recognizing “normal” has changed. She should be there because she always was. What is he supposed to do now that she’s not? How much of who he is stemmed from her presence, from being the man he knew she wanted so as to keep things status quo? How much of Davis’ life was built out of a desire to check off generic goals and how little was achieved to find actual happiness?
It’s no wonder Davis acts the way he does. A shell of his former self—empty and ready to be re-molded away from a person he doesn’t recognize—his decision to take metaphors literally along a path towards self-knowledge is commendable if awkward considering the circumstances. It’s not a matter of him going crazy; it’s about discovering how crazy he was up until this point. Years of crunching electronic numbers in a computer forced him to miss how much he loves working with his hands. The last thing Julia asked him to do was fix the refrigerator and the request has stuck in his head. He’d been so caught up in corporate minutiae that he hadn’t noticed it leaking. He hadn’t noticed many things, including his malaise.
Distraught and incapable of holding Julia’s face or voice in sight for longer than a second, he now notices nothing but those things. Squeaky doors, flickering lights, the steely coldness of a modern home devoid of attributes signifying “home” besides four walls and a roof—he’s bombarded with a deafening roar. And no one wants to hear it. They look at him sideways, send him away, and dismiss him as someone hurting rather than in control for the first time ever. His only outlet besides physical catharsis with sledgehammer on drywall is the anonymous letters he writes to a vending machine customer service center. The hospital’s unit ate his quarters and he means to explain exactly how he arrived at the moment of putting them into the slot.
What he couldn’t foresee—and what many audience members will write-off as contrivance—was that the person on the other end of those letters understands. Karen Moreno (Naomi Watts) is a single mother languishing under the responsibility that entails. She’s at her own crossroads having been with someone she didn’t love and currently finding herself with another. She empathizes with Davis’ plight and calls him to tell him he isn’t alone without actually saying those words. They form a fast friendship built on an acceptance devoid of judgment. Life is complicated and they seek to simplify it by escaping the soul-crushing weight of societal archetypes. No one has to settle for being anything less than who they are. There’s nothing more difficult in life then discovering just that.
I won’t deny Sipe goes heavy-handed on delivering this message with multiple spurts of violence and a couple revelations bordering on manipulation by the end, but I can’t say any of it ruined my enjoyment or belittled Davis and Karen’s growth. Tragedy must come full-circle in order for Davis to see he isn’t the same person he was at the beginning. Comparable hardship is necessary for him to react differently so as to accept his transformation has at least begun if it’s not yet fully formed. Davis needs someone like Karen’s son Chris (Judah Lewis) to interact with like he might wish Phil had with him. Demolition is a wake-up call and there’s no better catalyst for one than experiencing through the exact opposite of what you’ve known.
The journey may be difficult and heart-wrenching, but it’s funny too. No one does empty stare better than Gyllenhaal, although he’s usually providing it as a window into the head of a sociopath. This time it depicts an innocence removed from convention signifying a mind attempting to solve problems no one sees but him because the only way to conquer the massive issue he faces is to busy himself with smaller ones. He lets loose with childlike excitement, dancing in the streets and disseminating brutal honesty. His Davis is a mess—pieces identifying his core self mixed with pieces formed to hide them. Sometimes we simply need to lay everything out in order to discover which is which. And sometimes it’s our love that’s hidden furthest from sight.
 Jake Gyllenhaal as “Davis” in DEMOLITION. Photo Courtesy of Fox Searchlight. © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved
 Jake Gyllenhaal as “Davis” and Judah Lewis as “Chris Moreno” in DEMOLITION. Photo Courtesy of Fox Searchlight. © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved
 (From L-R): Chris Cooper as “Phil” and Jake Gyllenhaal as “Davis” in DEMOLITION. Photo Courtesy of Fox Searchlight. © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved