What is a person to do when the single most important person in their life is suddenly gone? What is to be done with the cold, empty space in their lives that has suddenly been voided. That’s a question that lies just under the surface of Suzanne Biere’s Things We Lost in the Fire, a melodrama about a sudden death and those who are left behind to fumble in the darkness for an answer.
Most certainly the despair falls on Audrey (Halle Berry) a beautiful housewife who, as the movie opens, is arranging a funeral for her beloved husband Brian (David Duchovney). He was shot to death while trying to stop a man from beating his wife in a parking lot. Audrey and Bryan were married for 11 years and the marriage has produced two children. Now in her grief, her eyes, her jawline and her body language reveal the inner turmoil of a woman who can’t quite get a handle of the moment. She works frantically, with the help of her brother, to locate everyone that need to be notified about Brian’s death. It isn’t until the day of the funeral that she realizes that she forgot someone.
He is Jerry Sunborne (Benicio Del Toro), a former lawyer who is now a heroine addict. Jerry and Brian were buddies going back to the second grade. Audrey didn’t approve of Jerry and that is probably why she forgot to call him. She invites him anyway, Brian would have wanted it. Jerry, trying a program to get clean, is surprised when she is invited to live in their garage. It would be better and safer than the flophouse where he currently resides.
With that idea in place, I settled back and waited for a romance to kick in, but this movie is smarter than that. It is the story of how two people are affected by this tragedy and the baby steps they take to get back on their feet. This, of course, would be nothing without great performances in the leads, starting with Benicio Del Toro as Jerry. He creates the sad portrait of a smart, damaged man who wants to make strides to get his life be in order after the tornado of heroine addiction. He was loyal to Brian because this was a man who never gave up on him.
I knew Del Toro was a good actor, but this movie helps me understand why. He has a deeply-lined, tired face that can reveal hidden dimensions of unspoken regret. He looks lived-in, not polished like a Hollywood movie star. He knows when to push a scene over the top and when the keep it close to the chest. Here he manages to keep from going over the top even in scenes when he trashing about in detox. Jerry is not your standard movie drug addict, he is a smart man who tries, time and again, to get himself clean. He fails but it doesn’t discourage him. After Brian’s death, he has a purpose.
Halle Berry surprised me. I’ve been complaining that ever since her Oscar win for Monster’s Ball, she’s been throwing away her talents on big-budget junk – movies that focus more on her body than her talent. Here, I think she gives her best performance as a woman lost in agony and grief, trying to find some way of getting a handle on Brian’s death. Her performance is all in her eyes, which are deep and sad. There are moments in this movie when she quivers very lightly, until the end when the full grief hits her.
Things We Lost in the Fire was directed by Susanne Bier, a Danish director whose specialty is creating stories about family bonds. She directed Brothers and In a Better World, one of this year’s Oscar nominees for Best Foreign Language film. I love her characters, they don’t walk or talk in a standard way. Although, as brilliantly written as the characters are in Things We Lost in the Fire, I think the ending is a little too clean. Both Jerry and Audrey go where we would expect them to go but it seems to let their grief off the hook a little too soon. Still, this is a movie about the journey, not the destination.