The film grammar of the car accident is so common it is cliche – close-ups, shallow focus, cut back and forth between the vehicle’s occupants randomly, leave space for the impact but tease it to keep the audience guessing, breaks squeal, glass shatters, metal crumples, maybe someone screams, cut the image to black and the sound to silence an instant after the crash happens. This is the stuff of a horror movie. Deny the audience context, eschew rhythm, pause for suspense, shock with loud sounds, and suggest rather than show the carnage.
Even though we recognize immediately what is happening and what is about to happen when a filmmaker begins a car sequence like this, it’s still effective, because the situation is common to anyone who has ever ridden in a car. So is the fear that something like this could happen to any one of us or anyone we love at any time. The car accident isn’t the most original inciting incident for a film about grief, but it’s an effective one, because we can all relate.
In Demolition, the new film starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Naomi Watts, Chris Cooper, and Judah Lewis, a fantastic young actor with only five credits to his name—he’s like a young Leonardo DiCaprio—a car accident like the one I describe above begins the film, claiming Davis’ (Gyllenhaal) wife’s life. The film follows Davis as he processes his grief in unorthodox ways. He takes to dismantling things, both literally—“leave no appliance unturned” might be his motto—and symbolically, his career and relationship with his late wife’s father (Cooper) especially. A chance letter to a vending machine company involves Karen (Watts) and her son (Lewis) in the messy process.
Demolition is directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who is known primarily for his work on Dallas Buyer’s Club and Wild, two other films about people who reluctantly adjust to a traumatic experience in unorthodox ways. Dallas Buyer’s Club and Wild are based on actual people’s real-life experiences. Demolition is not, and Vallée takes advantage of the narrative freedom, peppering Davis’ story with absurd dream sequences that are only later explained and allowing Davis to indulge in some truly troubling behavior. Vallee is a skillful filmmaker, and Demolition vacillates ably between horror and humor. Demolition isn’t dour. In it’s best moments, it is blackly funny.
However, one scene involving a kevlar vest, a pistol, and a child is, to me, reprehensible. It is true “gun play.” Regular readers will know I don’t often recommend caution when watching any film. I don’t think that’s my job. You are responsible for your own viewing habits. But the pistol scene in Demolition feels dangerous to me, as it is played humorously. I shudder to imagine the kind of accidental copy-cat killings it could inspire.
But that scene is an anomaly in the film. Mostly, Davis’ actions are simply outlandish. He’s certainly not meant to be an exemplar. Rather, his method of processing his grief is explicitly destructive, and he’s so ensconced in his own numbness even before his wife’s tragic death, he has to break away the layers of pride that inure him to real emotion.
I kept wondering where his friends were. His mother and father make a brief appearance before he pushes them away, and his wife’s parents are present, but they’re going through their own grief. Loss is common to us all, so loss is best processed in community. There are gaps in Davis’ story that make me wonder what else happened to make him so alone. Demolition manages to provide a lot of character backstory, but it never addresses this.
Demolition is a compelling film. Loss is something we all have to deal with at some point in our lives. Some grief films are too self-pitying to watch. Demolition isn’t this. It’s also not as rich as something like Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea, but perhaps it’s unfair to compare Reader’s Digest to Tolstoy. Then again, once you read Tolstoy, it can be difficult to read anything else.
Oh! I almost forgot to mention that Demolition has a fantastic soundtrack of songs you don’t often hear in movies about grief. I think I’ll go listen to it now.