‘Demolition’: How Does it Feel to Feel Nothing ?

How does it feel to feel nothing ? Haven’t we all experienced that “numbness” when we feel nothing ? It’s a strange feeling — if you want to call that a feeling in the first place — to be completely devoid of any emotion. You see things, but don’t notice it; you hear things, but don’t pay attention to it; your mind is working, yet you behave absent-mindedly. In a way, it is a self-protection measure that your mind uses to avoid facing the reality of the situation. But what happens when this protection barrier slowly starts breaking down and your mind starts becoming aware of the reality around it — that it had been ignoring all along ? ‘Demolition’, as a film, tries to address that.

Davis Mitchell (Jake Gyllenhaal), a successful investment banker, struggles after losing his wife in a tragic car crash. Despite pressure from his father in law, Phil (Chris Cooper), to pull it together, Davis continues to unravel. What starts as a complaint letter to a vending machine company turns into a series of letters revealing startling personal admissions. Davis’ letters catch the attention of customer service rep, Karen Mareno (Naomi Watts) and amidst emotional and financial burdens of her own, the two form an unlikely connection. With the help of Karen and her son, Chris (Judah Lewis), Davis starts to rebuild, beginning with the demolition of the life he once knew.

For a film that deals with the feelings of “nothingness”, ‘Demolition’ is surprisingly touching. In fact, ‘Demolition’s’ strength is the way director Jean-Marc Vallee creates this aura of melancholy, mundanity and surreality, so much so, that you immediately get sucked into Davis’ unbelievable world — or rather, mind. Even if it is hard to believe or justify Davis’ actions in the film, you certainly don’t question his motives — they are, at the end of the day, his ways to deal with an insufferable grief. What also works hugely in favor of the film is the presence of some really great actors — from Jake Gyllenhaal to Naomi Watts, everyone is fantastic — who all give their best to a story that could have easily fallen apart in lesser hands.

Anyone who has watched Vallee’s ‘Café de Flore’ will know that he has some extraordinary taste in music. And even better is the way he uses music in his films. In ‘Demolition’, there are at least three sequences that just get elevated to a different league just because of the background scores and the way Vallee coalesces music with expertly edited shots; they are a treat to eyes and ears.

But not everything is treat-worthy in ‘Demolition’. It has some serious flaws too. While Vallee’s complete focus is on Davis and his internal angst, he completely ignores other characters, especially, Karen, who’s played by Naomi Watts. In the end, it is even difficult to justify the presence of Karen in the story. One would have to presume that she’s there to act as the catalyst to Davis’ coming back to normalcy; but it hardly feels that way. Karen’s enters the story in an interesting fashion, but she exits it inexplicably. As good as Watts is in the film, I felt Vallee shortchanged her character.

‘Demolition’ also losses its way towards the end. The editing, which is the highlight of the first half of the film, becomes choppy in the last fifteen minutes, and it feels as if Vallee is in the rush to end the film — it’s a pity considering the film would have benefitted with an additional ten minutes of reel. In any case, overall, even with all the hiccups, ‘Demolition’ is completely worth your time. It tells a unique story, which in a strange way, is about the emotional journey of a man dealing with his lack of emotions. And that story should appeal to you, if for nothing else than its uniqueness and surprising depth of emotions that it evokes.