Wrecking Bawl: The Car Crash Grief Porn Of ‘Louder Than Bombs’ & ‘Demolition’

Demolition-judah-lewis-jake-gyllenhaal-gay-teen-devin-druid-jesse-eisenberg There are roughly 3,000 automobile deaths in America each year, and it feels like we see at least twice that many in the movies. Car accidents are the go-to tragedy for Hollywood, even moreso than cancer. It used to be that a character’s subtle cough around the midpoint of a film would indicate their burial by movie’s end; that’s still true, but at this point, the car crash supercedes it. The probability of dying in a car crash in California are roughly 1 in 12,000, but if you’re driving a car in a movie, the odds are more like 1 in 2 — especially if you’re cheerfully singing along to the radio. Banal conversation, too, will almost always summon the oncoming headlights. And if a cherished parent or beloved spouse operates a motor vehicle in the first scene of a movie, you can pretty much guarantee they’re about to get side-swiped.

That’s exactly the case in Demolition, which opens on Wall Street investment banker Davis (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Julia (Heather Lind) during their final morning commute together. She’s nattering on about irrelevant domestic matters (the fridge is leaking!), so you know something terrible’s about to happen. And it does. Julia is killed by an oncoming vehicle, and Davis escapes without a scratch on him.

Davis reacts numbly to the news of his wife’s death. No tears shed, no collapse. He looks, at best, mildly disappointed. Davis feeling a bit peckish after his wife’s demise, so he puts five quarters into a vending machine and selects some peanut M&Ms. Unfortunately, the machine malfunctions, so there is no nutty chocolate solace for Davis.

demolition-jake-gyllenhaal-fake-smileThat opening car crash is one of several acts of wreckage witnessed throughout the movie. Demolition does not take its metaphors lightly. Davis’ inward self-destruction is reflected outwardly with all the subtlety of a bulldozer — and I don’t say this just to be snarky, because he actually does work out his aggression with a bullzdozer in the movie. Do you see how Davis destroying his world physically matches the shattered wreckage of his emotional life? Yes? Well, of course you do. You’d have to be asleep to miss that kind of symbolism.

Demolition has an odd structure and takes a long time to get where it’s headed. The main thrust of the film is Davis’ relationship with Karen (Naomi Watts), a customer service rep from the vending machine company who turns out to also be a major pothead. This marijuana fugue may be meant to justify her bizarre choices throughout the course of this movie. Karen, a widow, calls Davis out of the blue at 2 AM one night. She’s sitting in her bathtub, but not taking a bath; that’s just where she likes to hang out. Karen has also recently begun following Davis around New York City. First he sends her a series of eloquent and revealing letters that most of us would deem inappropriate for a customer service interaction; then she begins stalking him; then she attempts to cut off the correspondence and he begins stalking her; all the while, someone else in a station wagon is stalking Davis. (And he’s less concerned about that than he probably should be.)

Yes. That’s right. While most filmmakers are content with just one contrived stalking scenario, Demolition is the kind of movie with three contrived stalkings. (These contrived stalkings are often romantic in nature, allowing characters we’re supposed to like to get away with behavior we’d find super creepy in real life. The number of film characters who justly deserve a restraining order is almost as high as the number of movie parents killed in car accidents.)naomi-watts-jake-gyllenhaal-demolitionIn case you couldn’t tell already, Demolition‘s screenplay is a bit of a wreck. (Tee hee.) The unusual friendship between Davis and Karen, for a while, seems like it’s meant to anchor the movie, but more meaning is drawn out of Davis’ relationship with Karen’s somewhat androgynous teen son Chris (Judah Lewis), who 1) has daddy issues (his dad died in bombing while swerving in the Middle East); 2) is questioning his sexuality (which means trying on lipstick, I guess, if you are in a movie written by a straight male); 3) is a sadistic troublemaker (he gets suspended from school, likes to play with guns and explosives, and sneaks out of the house to get wasted); but 4) is sweet and soulful underneath the sassy exterior (as most movie teens are). There’s a lot of material here. One of the film’s more interesting digressions involves Davis donning a  bulletproof vest so Chris can shoot him repeatedly with his stepfather’s handgun. That moment doesn’t feel tonally consistent with the rest of this movie, but it hints at a more subversive film that could have been. I couldn’t tell if I would like or hate that movie, or if I liked or hated the sudden introduction of reckless, consequence-free gunplay in a movie that wasn’t about that. A little of both, I reckon. It’s challenging, in this day and age, to watch a film toss off a scene involving a teenager gleefully brandishing a firearm and shooting someone, especially when the scene is meant to be “fun.”

Demolition meanders for a long while before making good on its title, until Davis and Chris finally take to utterly decimating his multi-million-dollar home with sledgehammers, the aforementioned bulldozer, and plenty of bottled-up angst. Screenwriter Bryan Sipe can’t seem to decide whether the film is about Davis’ relationship with Chris or with Karen, so neither storyline gets fully realized. There is a lot else going on, too, involving Julia’s father, who also happens to be Davis’ boss, Phil (Chris Cooper), rightly concerned with his son-in-law’s mental stability. (Cooper is one of few performers able to ground this movie in a recognizable reality, and anchors what is probably this film’s best scene.) Julia’s “ghost” also haunts Davis’ memories, even though he claims he didn’t love her. (Though that might be just a cop out because he’s emotionally wrecked. Get it?)demolition-jake-gyllenhaalIt sounds like I’m hating on Demolition, but I’m not. At least, not totally. Sipe’s script feels like an early draft by a promising novice. It makes a lot of obvious choices (including that car accident in the first scene), then tries to make up for that by occasionally including some truly bizarre ones (the early interactions between a heavily stoned Karen and grief-addled Davis are super weird). Most characters in this movie do not behave the way real human beings do, and yes, the film is meant to chronicle a journey that breaks from the traditional way grief gets depicted in the movies, with lots of cathartic crying and hugging. Davis’ kooky behavior might come across better in a film in which everyone else acted normal; Davis, Karen, and Chris are meant to be a trio of lovably rough-around-the-edges misfits, I’d guess, but a lot of the time they just seem like a bunch of jerks.

That said, after a rushed melodramatic climax, the film’s last couple scenes are truly touching and actually do pull off Davis’ character arc, albeit in a fairly pat way. Demolition is stylishly directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who helped Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto win Oscars for Dallas Buyers Club and earned nominations for Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern in Wild. It’s no surprise, then, that the performances are also the best thing about Demolition, particularly Gyllenhaal in the lead. You can sense Gyllenhaal wanting to do something darker and more Nightcrawler-ish than this script will allow; his performance comes most alive in the scenes in which his character makes the least sense, which is a weird dichotomy. It’s possible that Vallée was just the wrong choice to helm this particular story; there’s tension between the spiky, stylized script and Vallée’s free-flowing but sobering directorial style. (I wonder if the sensibilities of someone like Spike Jonze might have been a better match for the material.) Demolition is a flawed curiosity, and I can’t necessarily recommend it except to those who don’t mind a bit of mess in their movie. But I have a small amount of affection for it anyway. Even when it takes its wrong turns — and there are more than a few — it does so boldly, and with personality.

Isabelle-Huppert-car-crash-accident-Louder-than-BombsThe bulldozer subtlety of Demolition may make us look that much more fondly upon the equally noisy-sounding Louder Than Bombs, which treads gently with very similar subject matter. It follows a handful of characters who reckon with grief in the wake of a death.

What kind of death, you ask?

A car accident, of course!

Louder Than Bombs is the latest from Joachim Trier, the Norwegian filmmaker who previously brought us Reprise (released here in 2008) and Oslo, August 31st (from 2012), both of which are quite good. Unlike those films, Louder Than Bombs takes place in America and its performers speak English. Its cast is more familiar to stateside audiences, including Jesse Eisenberg, Gabriel Byrne, Amy Ryan, and David Strathairn. Despite these differences, Louder Than Bombs shares an awful lot in common with Trier’s previous works — most notably, it is utterly drenched in death. (Even moreso than the others.)

Louder Than Bombs is the story of three men reckoning with the loss of one woman. She is Isabelle Reed (Isabelle Huppert), a celebrated photojournalist who survived a bombing, amongst other mayhem abroad, only to come home and die in a comparatively mundane car accident. She is survived by two sons and her husband, each mourning her passing in their own way. Gene (Byrne) has only recently begun dating again, shacking up with a woman named Hannah who is, unfortunately, his son’s English teacher. Jonah (Eisenberg), a college professor, has left the nest and started his own family with his beautiful wife Amy (Megan Ketch), but he’s also still hankering for his ex Erin (Rachel Brosnahan), potentially because she is grieving for her own mother. Jonah’s younger brother Conrad (Devin Druid) is outwardly sullen and morose, prompting Jonah to wonder at one point if he’s going to shoot up a school. But it turns out Conrad’s inner life is richly weird, in a sweet way.amy-ryan-gabriel-byrne-lourder-than-bombs

Of this clan, it’s Conrad who is most obsessed with Isabelle’s passing, wondering what led to her death and what it was like for her in the moment. (A gorgeous, slow-mo fantasy sequence depicts his romanticized vision of the wreck.) The film treats us to memories from all three men. In this way, Isabelle becomes the most nuanced and “alive” character in the film, even though she’s already passed away when this story begins. Sometimes, people are more present in our minds and hearts once they’re gone than they were when alive. As a woman, Isabelle was praised and loved and misunderstood. As a ghost, she is mythic and majestic and mysterious. Death has a way of doing that to people.

Like Demolition, Louder Than Bombs meanders through several storylines, allowing all three Reed men to be protagonists at times, then occasionally dropping them to move on to something else. Jonah’s story, in particular, doesn’t get much of a resolution. Instead, Trier spends a fair amount of time on tertiary plot elements, like Conrad’s obsession with a cute, oblivious cheerleader named Melanie (Ruby Jerins). These rambling romantic interludes shouldn’t surprise anyone who has seen similar relationships play out in Trier’s previous work. He tends to like romantic asides, and there’s a nice long interaction between Conrad and Melanie near the end of the film that feels very true to teen life (and a bit Linklater-ish). Nearly every scene plays well as an individual moment; as a cumulative story, they don’t necessarily hang together. Much like Demolition, it feels like we’re seeing the remnants of several drafts that went in different directions, or a cut that has some significant pieces missing. In that way, it may remind of Kenneth Lonergan’s similarly morbid Margaret, though that was a bus accident instead of a car accident. (Sidenote: Lonergan’s previous film, You Can Count On Me, had protagonists orphaned by a car accident.)ruby-jerins-melanie-louder_than_bombs

Trier’s Reprise and Oslo, August 31st were both about young men struggling with whether to live or die. Louder Than Bombs tells the story of a woman who is already gone. Gene believes Isabelle took her own life, which is not a terribly significant detail in the grand scheme of things. The film explores the absence any person leaves once they go, regardless of how or when they go. Isabelle could easily have been a more ordinary character, but Trier makes her a renowned photographer with an adventurous soul, someone we’d gladly watch a whole movie about. (Possible prequel?) Isabelle’s return to the United States to be near her family leaves her conflicted about the world of drama and danger she abandoned abroad. (There are definite shades of The Hurt Locker here — Isabelle’s something of a war addict, too.)

This adds a dimension of depth to what might’ve been a more maudlin tale. Gene, Jonah, and Conrad wonder about this woman’s inner life, but her death-defying experiences in the Middle East are unknowable to them in this safe, suburban world. She took risks and made a name for herself in ways they never will. In a way, Isabelle is this film’s protagonist. She’s certainly the strongest, most interesting character, which could be Trier’s intent so that we feel her absence the way her love ones do. Maybe that’s why none of the other characters is quite able to rise to the occasion of being this film’s central character. Isabelle is our heroine, carrying this story from beyond the grave. That’s not easy to do.

Louder Than Bombs is comprised of a fair number of grief porn indie cliches, though its screenplay is more nuanced than Demolition‘s. There’s no “big idea” (like causing external physical damage to nurse the wounds within); it’s rather a character-based rumination on that old adage, “life goes on.” Both films feature moody, half-orphaned teens obsessed with recreating their parent’s death scene, and are haunted by visions of the dead woman in question long after she’s physically gone. They make for a nice downer of a double feature, but there’s no reason not to wait for rental. After all, you never know what terrible calamity might befall you on the way to the theater… if I’ve learned anything from the movies, it’s that it’s just not safe out there!

Isabelle-Huppert-Devin-Druid-Louder-Than-Bombs*

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