Review: ‘Demolition’ turns grieving into dark comedy

Patrick Dunn
Special to The Detroit News

Director Jean-Marc Vallée made his name with the stylish Oscar-nominated dramas “Wild” and “Dallas Buyers Club,” but he takes a surprisingly effective comic tack in “Demolition.”

That’s not to say that the film’s subject material is by any means traditionally comic. Our protagonist is Davis (Jake Gyllenhaal), a successful investment banker, whose wife is killed in a car accident within the film’s first five minutes. The outwardly callous Davis undertakes a highly unconventional grieving process, becoming fixated on disassembling all manner of objects while slacking off at work.

Most oddly, he develops a close relationship with Karen, a vending machine company customer service rep (Naomi Watts), after repeatedly harassing her employer to refund the chump change he lost to a snack machine just after the tragic crash. Screenwriter Bryan Sipe craftily mines this bizarre situation for comedy that’s certainly dark, but still sympathetic to the characters.

Vallée translates the material to the screen with typical skill. He employs the blink-and-you-miss-’em flashbacks he so effectively used in “Wild” to give Davis’ story deep-seated emotional context. He also deploys his usual sure hand with actors, eliciting particularly fine performances from Gyllenhaal and Judah Lewis as Karen’s seemingly tough young son.

While Sipe deserves credit for the film’s singular tone, he’s also to blame for most of its shortcomings.

The writer inexplicably feels compelled to pile on far too many maudlin plot twists in the film’s home stretch, and Davis’ disassembly fetish often plays far too on-the-nose. (He’s dismantling his old life, get it?)

However, Vallée and his cast make the most of even Sipe’s most groan-worthy moments, doing some reconstruction work on a story that ultimately resonates far more than it might have in lesser hands.

Patrick Dunn is a Metro Detroit freelance writer.

‘Demolition’

GRADE: B-

Rated R for language, some sexual references, drug use and disturbing behavior

Running time: 100 minutes