Demolition

July 15, 2016
Jake Gyllenhaal in 'Demolition' (2015)
Jake Gyllenhaal in 'Demolition' (2015)

Eighteenth century writers gave us the novel of sentiment, and a character known as ‘the man of feeling’ – which was the title of a best-seller of 1771 by Scotsman, Henry Mackenzie. The man of feeling responded readily to misfortunes and joys of others, and this display of sensitivity was seen as profoundly moral. Readers wept copiously as they read Mackenzie or the pedagogical novels of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Historian Robert Darnton has looked at the letters Rousseau received from readers who claimed that his books had caused them to shed “floods of tears” and instilled a love of virtue.

Nowadays we find these novels all but unreadable. We are less sentimental than our ancestors, and more easily bored. We certainly don’t have much love for virtue, and neither did they, one suspects, although they liked the idea of virtue.

The modern era has replaced the man of feeling with the man who cannot feel. The literary prototype is Albert Camus’s character, Meursault, in The Outsider, who shoots a man on the beach. He doesn’t really know why, and experiences no remorse.

Meursault doesn’t cry at his mother’s funeral or allow this event to change his daily habits. He has a soul mate in Jake Gyllenhaal’s Davis Mitchell, in the film, Demolition. After losing his wife, Julia, in an accident from which he emerges unscathed, Davis feels no grief, no distress. As he waits at the hospital, the only thing that stirs his interest is a vending machine that takes his money but fails to deliver a packet of peanut M&Ms.

The next day he is back at his job in a wall street finance firm, as if nothing had happened. This seems odd to everyone else, especially his boss, Phil (Chris Cooper), who also happens to be Julia’s father. But it’s only the beginning of Davis’s weirdness.

When Phil tells Davis: “If you want to fix something, you have to take it apart and put it back together,” he doesn’t realise what he’s starting. Soon Davis has dismantled his desktop computer and a cubicle door in the men’s toilets. He continues at home, taking appliances apart but never bothering to reassemble anything. He only pauses to write a long letter of complaint to the vending machine company, which he embellishes with a lot of biographical detail, including his wife’s death.

As this is a kind of warped fairy tale, Davis gets a phone call at 2 am from one Karen Moreto (Naomi Watts) the customer service officer for the vending company. She has been touched by his letter and had to ring to tell him.

Soon Davis is pursuing Karen, although she proves to be elusive, insecure, and almost as odd as he is. When he says, “Everything seems to be a metaphor”, we can only say: “Thanks, but I’d already figured that out.”

Davis is on a quest in search of his absent feelings, but he adopts a scorched earth policy, being compelled to uproot and destroy every vestige of his past life. Destruction soon becomes an end unto itself. He pays a demolition crew to allow him to help take a house apart, and then starts the process at home. He no longer goes to work, but strikes up a friendship with Karen’s teenage son (Judah Lewis) who has his own concerns about his sexual identity.

The letters Davis writes to the vending company are reminiscent of Jack Nicholson’s missives in About Schmidt (2002). There are also echoes of American Beauty (1999) in the way characters struggle to find some kind of genuine sensation within the cocoon of middle-class America. In fact there are echoes of many other films, all minced together in a script by Brian Sipes, who apparently felt the need for an exorcism after his previous efforts on that appalling bath of treacle, The Choice.

In that movie a couple of young, beautiful professionals enjoy a luxurious lifestyle until tragedy strikes. In Demolition, Davis systematically destroys all the material goods he has accumulated through his work in the immaterial realms of the money markets. He knows he has suffered a tragedy, but is emotionally disengaged.

He seeks stimulation in loud music and sharp pain, but for most of the movie he acts like one of the walking dead. If the character sustains our interest it’s largely because of the strength of Gyllenhaal’s performance and the dynamism of Jean-Marc Vallée’s direction. After Dallas Buyers Club and Wild, this is yet another tangent for Vallée. Like Louis Malle, he seems phobic about repeating himself.

It’s no simple matter to make us feel sympathy for an inert anti-hero who gets his only joys from full-scale destruction. There may be a little of Davis in all of us, but he remains an extreme case. The man who cannot feel is not simply a product of a alienated society, as the Marxists believed, but a sleepwalker who has gone through life without ever pausing to consider the direction he is taking. Jolted awake, he has the urge to tear it all down.

Demolition
Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée
Written by Bryan Sipe
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Naomi Watts, Judah Lewis, Chris Cooper, Polly Draper, C.J.Wilson
USA, rated , 101 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 16th July, 2016.