Politics & Policy

Morale-Busters

Jake Gyllenhaal in Demolition (Fox Searchlight)
Demolition and Louder than Bombs reinterpret 9/11.

The Freedom Tower, built to replace the World Trade Center towers destroyed on 9/11, makes its film debut in two new movies, Demolition and Louder than Bombs. Both titles evoke that world-changing tragedy, and each film deals with the shambles that remain of Americans’ personal lives — the same malaise that has infected our political campaigns.

Wall Street lawyer Davis Mitchell (Jake Gyllenhaal) in Demolition and  New York Times war photographer Isabelle Reed (Isabelle Huppert) in Louder than Bombs show how difficult it has been to achieve post–9/11 catharsis. Each character confronts the domestic melodrama of death as an indication of our sunken morale: Mitchell reacts to the loss of his wife in a car crash by obsessively deconstructing or even demolishing material objects as a way of picking apart his dissatisfied life. Reed’s suicide (committed after reporting from Afghanistan) leaves her surviving husband and two sons (Gabriel Byrne, Jesse Eisenberg, and Devin Druid) to pick up the pieces of their shattered family life without a clue as to what might gratify them.

Classic melodramas (whether The Best Years of Our Lives, From Here to Eternity, The Godfather, or The Deer Hunter) usually work when audiences identify with characters and follow their dilemmas toward some emotional release. But Demolition and Louder than Bombs operate differently; these two indie art films take a specialized approach to audience identification through stories about the upper middle class. This is not unrelated to the ways politicians pander to “the middle class,” knowing that most Americans embrace that demographic fallacy as an aspirational dream. Sure enough, Mitchell and Reed live in circumstances most Americans would covet — a high-tech suburban home and a fulfilling, well-compensated profession. (“You have everything you want in one place,” Reed tells her anxious husband.) These melodramas do not follow the conceit of insisting that the characters punch a time clock. That’s what gives Mitchell the leisure to pursue his manic hobby as a hardhat demolitionist, and allows Reed’s survivors to take the time off to pursue their panic and self-torment through digital media and extramarital dalliance — just as she had done. The license to pursue one’s angst seems particularly privileged — if not enviable.

It’s no coincidence that along with sharing post–9/11 crisis as their subject, Demolition and Louder than Bombs both use fussy narrative tactics — lots of cross-cut editing that mixes time frames, jumping from scene to scene without dramatic conclusions. The point of both films is to replicate the new millennium’s widespread personal fragmentation, and to convey social chaos and misery. And the problem with each film lies in the filmmakers’ accepting that chaos and misery. They intentionally delay catharsis — not just through cold-hearted melodrama but also as a moral and spiritual position.

Mitchell, his bereaved in-laws, and the single mother and child (Naomi Watts and Judah Lewis) he befriends are caught up in everyday dissatisfaction, just like Reed’s disoriented and bereft family members. None of these characters know who they are beyond going through formal daily routines. If this millennial zombie status has any basis in truth, that truth is made to seem artificial through glossy, unrealistic presentation. The audience’s identification stops with the very emotional displacement being dramatized.

Devin Druid and Gabrielle Byrne in “Louder Than Bombs”

In Demolition, director Jean-Marc Vallée goes for the same slick, scattershot existentialism as in his previous films, The Dallas Buyers Club and Wild. Norwegian director Joachim Trier makes his first American film with Louder than Bombs, but shows off the same morose affectations as in his previous work, Reprise and Oslo, August 31st (a not bad but still lesser update of Louis Malle’s The Fire Within). Both filmmakers, art-movie habitués, are forging styles that are divorced from realism and wedded to a peculiar contemporary sentimentality — the kind of self-serving storytelling you see celebrated at the annual Independent Spirit Awards. (Spotlight, anyone? No thanks.)

Neither filmmaker can be accused of suffering from post–9/11 shellshock, but both display something less defensible: a certain class arrogance and social cynicism (to a greater extent in Demolition than in the more detailed Louder than Bombs) of the sort also seen in the 1999 American Beauty – and just about every TV copycat thereafter. Neither movie is as offensive as American Beauty, but they’re just as contrived. Both include at-risk-teen subplots and fantasy sequences with either floating bodies or exaggerated reprisals. As one character says, “Everything has become a metaphor.” It’s unfortunate that Vallee and Trier didn’t learn about millennial angst from Robert Altman’s prophetic, incisive 1993 Short Cuts (where divorcé Peter Gallagher’s living-room demolition scene rendered Vallee’s entire movie redundant).

#related#Oddly enough, both these films are essentially literary conceits despite their excessively disconnected, pseudo-cinematic editing patterns. Mitchell narrates: “I’m starting to notice things I never saw before. Maybe I saw them, I just wasn’t paying attention.” One of the multiple voice-overs in Louder than Bombs describes “that strangely familiar smell of damp earth he couldn’t quite place.” It’s as if all these anomic characters emanated from inside the bourgeois bubble of New Yorker fiction — and its political pomposity as well.

That two new films should both present characters who remain unconscious of their own bourgeois self-loathing (and barely suppressed contempt for America) is not unrelated to the bourgie political attitude that sees the tragedy of 9/11 only for its impact on ruling-class anxiety. In both films, alienation is linked to 9/11 and the war on terror. Each narrative fragment is expressed through the dislocation of news media, video games, virtual-reality toys, and the distraction of infidelity. So when the Freedom Tower finally appears, it looms in the distance to suggest a character’s stubborn solipsism, not an evolved social consciousness. This is what we get when national morale falls into the hands of politicians, media hucksters, and filmmakers who are over-practiced in escapism and self-deception. The emotional trauma of 9/11 remains unresolved.

*      *      *

Rod Paradot in “Standing Tall”

Schubert’s Piano Trio No. 2 in E Flat, Opus 100, was used with memorable stately irony in Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. Emmanuelle Bercot transforms that irony in the French at-risk-teen movie Standing Tall (La Tête Haute). She takes the idea of a modern social scoundrel, Parisian delinquent Malony (Rod Paradot), and brings in classic, Rousseauvian social virtues to replace the sarcasm of Kubrick’s evil masterpiece. Bercot’s best irony is the film’s fleet, incisive style — not docudrama but emotional precision in the composition, editing, and perfectly pitched humane performances (including Catherine Deneuve and Benoit Magimel at their compassionate best). Seeking redemption for the millennium’s lost generation makes Standing Tall this week’s towering film achievement.

— Armond White, a film critic who writes about movies for National Review Online, received the American Book Awards’ Anti-Censorship Award. He is the author of The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World and the forthcoming What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about the Movies.

Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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