Laura CliffordAudrey Burke (Halle Berry) worries every time her husband, Brian (David Duchovny), goes into the inner city to visit his junkie friend, Jerry (Benicio Del Toro). But, it is when he heads off to the local ice cream shop that she should really fret. Brian tries to stop a wife beating and is murdered for his attempted good deed. Audrey, now alone with their two children, is beyond grief and turns to Jerry to help her come to grips with the tragic loss in “Things We Lost in the Fire.”
Danish transplant Susanne Bier makes her US debut with this tautly wound drama of loss and recovery. She has proved herself an extraordinarily capable actor’s director with such films as “Brothers (2004)” and After the Wedding (2006).” Her talents are well-suited to the angst of scripter Allan Loeb’s saga about a happy family plunged into grief by a random act of violence.
Bier sets things up with ease and grace as we meet the Burke family. Brian is a very success architectural designer with a lovely family and a beautiful home. Things could not be going better for the Burkes, especially when compared to the life of his childhood best friend. Jerry was once a successful attorney but an affinity for illicit drugs, especially heroin, brought his downfall and an end to his career. His ruin has brought him to the point where his next fix is the most important thing in his life.
When Brian’s act of kindness and humanity ends in his untimely and tragic death, Audrey is plunged into grief. Almost as an afterthought, she invites Jerry to attend his friend’s funeral and is taken by his gentle, troubled persona. But, after the funeral, Audrey sinks even further into despair. Desperate for closure over her loss, she invites Jerry to come and stay in their garage turned guesthouse. He agrees and a degree of stability begins to return to the Burke household – especially for 10-year old Harper (Alexis Llewellyn) and 6-year old Dory (Micah Berry).
Loeb’s story does not go in predictable directions when Jerry moves into the Burke’s home. The healing process, for Audrey, begins when she asks him to help her get the sleep that has eluded her since Brian’s death. Typically, in American films, Audrey and Jerry would end up in each other’s arms, with the gratuitous sex playing a major factor in her overcoming her grief. Here, though, we have two broken people who help each other mend and climb out of their despair. However, Jerry’s insinuation into the Burke household begins to have negative affect on Audrey and she believes that Jerry is trying to replace Brian. She asks him to leave. Jerry, in turn, returns to his old habits and it is Audrey’s turn to try to make things right.
My only real complaint with “Things We Lost in the Fire” is a tacked on side story that brings Jerry to Narcotics Anonymous meetings where he meets another recovering junkie, pretty, young Kelly (Alison Lohman). The only reason for this diversion is to allow Audrey, after Jerry slumps back into his old addict ways, to help him recover once and for all with Kelly’s help. This is a minor complaint, though, as the meat of the story is about two people who need each other to make themselves whole again.
Susanne Bier displays a deft hand in eliciting first-rate performances from her talented cast. Halle Berry shows the mettle she once displayed in her Oscar-winning role in “Monster Ball” and “Things…” is the best thing she has done since. Benicio Del Toro, never a disappointment on the big screen, gives one of best performances to date, showing the ravages that his addiction has brought to his life. Surprisingly, the youngsters playing Harper and Dory are an integral part of the story and help give the film even more depth. John Carroll Lynch (“Zodiac”) is touching as the Burke’s neighbor and Brian’s friend, Howard, who lends his hand in aiding Jerry’s recovery.
Bier’s fine directing is augmented by a superior behind-the-camera crew that gives “Things…” a beautiful look and feel. Tom Stern’s excellent widescreen lensing helps maintain the film’s intimacy and his use of extreme close ups show Audrey’s grief-stricken beauty and the ravages that Jerry’s life has brought upon him. Del Toro has a great, expressive and lived-in face and Stern uses it to excellent ends. Production design (Richard Sherman), editing (Pernille Bech Christensen and Bruce Cannon), original score (Johan Soderqvist) and the rest all contribute in making “Things We Lost in the Fire” a worthwhile drama that will appeal to mature, discerning audiences.
It is refreshing to see an American film that is not steeped in cliché. The twists and turns of this personal drama go in unexpected and satisfying directions. It stumbles just a bit with the Kelly character that feels shoehorned into the otherwise riveting plotline. Still, I give it an A-.
Laura gives "Things We Lost in the Fire" an A-.
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