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The Bereaved

There is a fine moment in “Demolition,” when Davis Mitchell (Jake Gyllenhaal) begins to weep. He stands in front of a mirror, black-suited, and his features crumple and crack. We understand why: not long ago, we saw him lose his wife, Julia (Heather Lind), in a car crash. Now he’s at a gathering after the funeral, and mourners are murmuring in the next room. Just as our hearts go out to Davis, however, he stops. The cracks are instantly mended, his face goes blank, and we realize that he is practicing—trying out tears, as if they were not coming as they should. Our hearts pull back, and we wonder what sort of person he might be. Is he an ice man, a con man, or a creep? Or, to be fair, could the poor guy still be in shock?

Davis works in Manhattan, at an investment bank that handles six billion dollars. (“I never thought I’d be one of those people who carried a briefcase.”) He and Julia had no children, and the rhythm of his existence, in the wake of her death, barely skips a beat. He soon heads back to the office as though nothing has occurred; his colleagues, who, like most of us, are unskilled in the art of consolation, speak in low and halting tones, staring at Davis as if he were somehow disfigured. When he returns, alone, to his well-appointed house in the suburbs, he resembles any other tired commuter coming home.

Yet something is awry. In Davis’s mind, the wrongness lies deep in the machinery of the world, which cries out to be fixed. There’s a leak in the fridge, and he pulls the whole unit to the floor. One of the toilet doors at work has a squeak, so he takes the stall apart and lays it out, piece by piece, in the men’s room. The computer on his desk suffers a similar doom. And so to the rest of his house, with Davis swinging a sledgehammer and then, frustrated by such modest damage, upgrading to a bulldozer. (“You can buy almost anything on eBay.”) Devastation brings a savage joy.

We get what’s going on, partly because Davis explains it. In a voice-over, he says that “everything has become a metaphor.” Thanks for that. He is in denial, blocking out his loss and shunting his feelings sideways into brute force. The loss is all the harder to define because, as he now admits, he never really knew his wife that well. Needless to say, if you want someone to show these crunchings and compressions of the spirit, Gyllenhaal is your man, not least because the body that houses them is in such rosy fettle. So clean-cut does he seem as an actor, with that steady jaw and the disconcerting directness of his gaze, that when anything truly messy or emotionally dishevelled comes along we know for sure that battle will be joined. This all-American fellow, schooled in resolve, keeps fighting the enemy within. It happened in “Nightcrawler,” in 2014, when his character’s unfeedable craving for success left him looking like a famine victim, and it happens again in “Demolition,” as his cheeks darken with stubble and his eyes shine with the voracity of the mad.

Davis reaches out from his bereavement, though not for sex. When he does meet someone new, his desire is not to sleep with her but to register a complaint. Nettled by his inability to buy M&M’s at the hospital, on the day his wife dies, he enters into correspondence with the vending-machine company, treating it the way a sinner treats the confessional. A woman named Karen (Naomi Watts), from customer service, calls him back at two in the morning. Soon, they are circling and stalking each other, in a trance of neediness. Davis finds himself slipping into her life as if through a side door and befriending her teen-age son, Chris (Judah Lewis), who has troubles of his own. The two males bond as only males can, by smashing stuff. They also go into a forest, where Davis wants to test a bulletproof vest. Chris is in charge of the gun.

All this is fairly weird. But is it weird enough? The movie was written by Bryan Sipe and directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, a filmmaker of considerable cunning, who takes predicaments that should by rights deflate the heart—an H.I.V. diagnosis in “Dallas Buyers Club” (2013), a psychological debacle in “Wild” (2014)—and turns them into nimble entertainments. What he has created in “Demolition” is the ultimate proof of that knack: an upbeat film about grief. It’s not a black comedy, for Vallée prefers to paint his dramas in brighter hues. Davis bops along the sunlit avenues of New York, in headphones and shades, as if starring in his own private musical. There’s also a great conversation in a hardware store between Davis and Chris, who is mildly concerned that he might be gay. Thanks to the frisky telling of the tale, nothing is harped upon or mooned over, and the one person who breaks that rule—Julia’s father, Phil (Chris Cooper), a founding partner at the firm that employs Davis—appears to be moving slowly, in a slough of lamentation, through a different movie altogether. His highlight is a red-eyed diatribe against the meagre status of his sorrow: “Man loses his wife, he’s a widower. Child loses a parent, he’s an orphan. But losing a child: there’s no word for that.”

For the most part, “Demolition” is unpersuaded by such agony. There is much to savor here, especially the unforced performance of Judah Lewis—one more recruit to the terrific roster of younger actors who are streaming into the movies. Yet the film lacks the courage of its affliction. When, in Michael Haneke’s “The Seventh Continent” (1989), a father led his family in the Davis-like destruction of their home, you knew that there could be only one conclusion. Davis, on the other hand, is gradually diverted from his boorish task. At a certain point—I would nominate the scene in which he comes upon a disused fairground, in need of repair—it becomes clear that the film is one long act of therapy, and that, more galling still, it is heading remorselessly toward a happy ending. Whereas the hero of Nanni Moretti’s “The Son’s Room” (2001) went to a shuddering funfair on the night of his child’s death, as if to beat himself up or to stun himself back into consciousness, the carrousels in Vallée’s movie are nothing but vessels of delight, and we are even obliged to watch Phil, of all people, swaying along on a tootling merry-go-round. He wears a terrible fixed grin, like a suffering soul who would rather not join in the revels, and you can hardly blame him. “Demolition” is right to suggest that lives can fall apart at a traumatizing speed. But are they so easily restored?

Source: The New Yorker, April 18, 2016 issue

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