Absent grief in response to the death of a loved one is a strange and alienating aspect of human behaviour, both for the person experiencing it and those around them. It's often assumed that there must be something wrong with such people -- that they're cold or repressed -- or viewed as an insult to the dead, but despite how disturbing it might seem, it's simply a sane yet misunderstood response.

A fascinating subject for a character study, then. Dallas Buyers Club director Jean Marc-Vallée takes on this intriguing emotionless state in Demolition. A sudden car crash leaves Wall Street suit Davis (Jake Gyllenhaal) widowed, but lacking any outward signs of grief. Unable to cry, or even fake it, his loss manifests instead in an obsession with disassembling everything he feels he's taken for granted. Pressured by his father-in-law and boss Phil (Chris Cooper) to confront his feelings and help build a foundation in honour of his wife, Davis instead spends his time communicating with Karen (Naomi Watts), a customer service rep responsible for the faulty hospital vending machine that denied him M&M's after his wife died. Buoyed by Karen's sympathies and a newfound clarity, Davis begins to take apart his life piece by piece, aided by Karen's son Chris (Judah Lewis), who is going through his own identity crisis.

Despite showing early promise, Demolition is unwilling to confront grief with the raw honesty exhibited by the strangely liberated Davis. Belabouring a metaphor that's spelled out in the title, script and repeated action, the film never digs deep into the true destruction of a violently erased loved one. Although keenly shot -- Marc-Vallée and cinematographer Yves Bélanger have great eyes for detail -- and adeptly edited to evoke a depressive haze, the reliance on standard Hollywood conventions and a parade of false mannerisms betray a shallow understanding. There are some moments when Marc-Vallée and scriptwriter Bryan Sipe edge towards the complicated poignancy of Alexander Payne, but they repeatedly disappoint, stumbling into sap more akin to Cameron Crowe.

The film may bungle a compelling premise, but that's not to say it isn't consistently engaging and somewhat unpredictable -- a genuinely platonic male-female friendship instead of the usual romance, for instance. Everything is lifted by a riveting performance from Gyllenhaal, who manages to find the evocative in the detached and credibility in even the worst excesses of faux eccentricity. Davis becomes a strong character in a weaker film, and things are best when the contrivances of the film gets out of the way to let Gyllenhaal play with the audience's sympathies. His chemistry with star-in-the-making Judah Lewis -- particularly an extended riff on the appropriate usage and rationing of the word 'fuck' -- is a highlight, avoiding the pitfalls common to the now very cliché precocious child/childish adult trope.

Demolition is frequently funny, sometimes touching and occasionally surprising, but constructs a wall of metaphors and quirks rather than knock down the artifice to deal with grief in a truly effective way. Enjoyment of the film depends very much on a viewer's willingness to accept the hack symbolism and surfeit of schmaltz, and just appreciate what works.