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Movie review: Grief gets weird in Vallee’s ‘Demolition’

This image released by Fox Searchlight shows Jake Gyllenhaal in a scene from “Demolition.” (Associated Press)
This image released by Fox Searchlight shows Jake Gyllenhaal in a scene from “Demolition.” (Associated Press)
Lindsey Bahr Associated Press

What if a young man who just lost his young wife in a car accident experienced none of the stages of grief? What if he felt nothing? What if he, instead, started writing letters to a vending machine company and dismantling every object in sight?

Perhaps that’s just a person coasting in denial, but, to buy that, you would have to believe that the person also had some sort of humanity in the first place. In the case of Davis Mitchell (Jake Gyllenhaal) in director Jean-Marc Vallee’s ambitious, flawed and whimsically sinister “Demolition,” let’s just say that’s not entirely clear. Davis, for much of the movie, is like the Patrick Bateman of widowers. He is incredibly wealthy, cold, unfeeling and vaguely sociopathic. Instead of bodies, though, it’s objects he’s dissecting.

At first, it’s actually quite captivating as you drift with Davis in the aftermath of his wife Julia’s (Heather Lind) death. He was in the car with her when it got broadsided. He came out without a scratch. She died that night.

He can’t even muster any emotion as her grieving father (Chris Cooper) breaks down. And then at the wake, instead of socializing, he goes into a study to compose a letter to the vending machine company whose hospital unit failed to give him the Peanut M&Ms he paid for. It’s in this handwritten complaint letter where Davis starts to really dish – about how he only got this job at a $6 billion investment firm because of his father-in-law, about his daily routines in his magazine-ready glass and steel cube of a house, about the time he lied to a fellow passenger on the commuter train about what he did for a living, and about how he never really loved his wife.

Davis starts writing letters to the vending machine company on a regular basis, and, in his free time, decides to take everything apart including, but not limited to, a fridge, a bathroom stall, a bathroom light fixture and a random house. Of course his life falls apart with it. Subtlety is not what this movie is going for.

It’s quirky but also menacing, and Vallee and Gyllenhaal find the dark humor in this man’s odd behavior. Davis might not be someone who exists in the real world, but Gyllenhaal wears his unconventionalities well.

We’ve seen this character type before in slightly different iterations – the man with the wild look in his eyes who is just disconnected enough from reality, as though he’s the only living person who can see the truth of our daily hypocrisies. Gyllenhaal elevates it, too, but that should be no surprise at this point from one of our most talented leading men.

Then the eccentric working-class side characters arrive – Karen (Naomi Watts), a customer service rep at the vending machine company who was moved by his confessional letters, and her angst-ridden preteen son, Chris (Judah Lewis). Suddenly Davis is finding solace in this single mom stoner with a heart of gold and a young boy with glam rock predilections, who is questioning his gender and sexuality. It’s a bit much for something that had been so focused and streamlined at first.

The movie is infinitely more interesting when Davis is just an unredeemable sociopath, but it turns out the story has a different idea about that, and things begin to unravel. Cloying plot revelations aside, the film is a stimulating step forward for Vallee, who, with “Wild” and “Dallas Buyers Club,” has inadvertently become the go-to director for actors craving that Oscar nomination.

Perhaps “Demolition” should have stuck with its original premise until the bitter end, or made Davis just a little more human at the outset. As it stands, “Demolition” doesn’t quite come together, but it’s far from a wreck.

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