A man's wife dies in a car crash. The man grieves.
From that simple premise come two complex films: Louder Than Bombs and Demolition. Turns out, there's a reason for those explosive titles.
A physical reason in Demolition, which takes the demolishing of a marriage literally. Davis (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a successful financial exec who seems a little distracted when we meet him. A lot distracted, actually; in fact, perpetually distracted, even when something happens that really ought to focus him — an automobile accident that injures him slightly, but kills his wife, who was driving.
But it doesn't focus him. Before he's even out of the hospital, Davis is composing a letter about a waiting room vending machine that has taken his five quarters but failed to give him his peanut M&M's.
"I found this upsetting because I was very hungry," he writes, "and also my wife had died ten minutes earlier."
As you might expect, this is a letter that gets a response. Naomi Watts plays the vending company's PR person. She calls Davis after receiving his fourth complaint letter, in the middle of the night.
"Do you have someone to talk to?" she wonders. An unlikely relationship ensues, in which Davis becomes a part of her life, and also that of her teenage son.
Others wonder about his behavior, too. To the concern of his in-laws — his father-in-law (Chris Cooper) is also his boss — Davis is obsessing over how many things in his life, besides vending machines, don't work. The last words his wife said to him before she died were about fixing a leak in the fridge. So he starts by taking apart the fridge, and then dismantling his computer, and bathroom stalls at his office that have squeaky doors, and basically anything he thinks is broken. Initially the dismantling involves screwdrivers, but after a while it also involves sledgehammers, and buzz saws, and when he decides his whole house has to go, a bulldozer.
Demolition, you'll have guessed by this time, is a metaphor, a point the script makes several times, at once elegantly, and a little on-the-nose-edly. Director Jean-Marc Vallée, the guy who made Dallas Buyers Club, knows how to keep you engaged as Davis does the demolishing of his life, though not how to wrap things up when the demolition is complete. The film's conclusion is far neater than real life.
Those looking for something real-life-like are likely to be happier with Louder Than Bombs, near the beginning of which we see Gene (Gabriel Byrne) watching a video tribute to his wife, Isabel (Isabelle Huppert), a celebrated war photographer. The tribute was was produced for a posthumous exhibition of work she had done for The New York Times and is to be accompanied by an article in the Times that will lay bare a fact about her death — that it was a suicide.
"I don't want to be a part of romanticizing what we do," says her former editor, played by David Strathairn. "Isabel wouldn't either."
Though it's been four years, Gene and his sons haven't really processed Isabel's death, nor even talked about its being a suicide. Elder son (Jesse Eisenberg) knows, but both he and his father have kept it from younger son (Devin Druid), who was 12 when his mother died.
Communication was never this family's strong suit, and director Joachim Trier lets you see just how it gets short-circuited now. Resentful older son setting himself up as keeper of his mother's flame, withdrawn younger son following in his mother's creative footsteps with a soul-baring video project, as Dad is left trying to bridge family chasms that gaped wide long before his wife died.
The director creates a rich visual collage of dreams-within-flashbacks, gaming fantasies, TV footage that conflates actors with the characters they're playing, and terrific performances.
Huppert makes the photographer an enigmatic presence in flashbacks, worthy of the vastly different grieving being done by the men who can't let her go. Byrne is delicately understated as a man who has begun to move on, Eisenberg weaselly and scheming as one who can't let go, and Druid is a revelation as a distant, angry teen who would be struggling to find his place in the world even if his mother were there to help.
There is no catharsis in their story, no smashing of objects, no demolition. What's louder than bombs in Louder Than Bombs is the quiet, believable roar of anguish emanating from a family in crisis.