Top performance ignites heart-rending drama

by Mark Burger

A sad and somber film, Things We Lost in the Fire is nevertheless filled with hope and compassion. The film marks the first English-language film to be directed by the acclaimed Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier, but hopefully it won’t be the last.

In many ways, the pivotal character in the film is the one whose death sets forward the motion of the story. Steven (David Duchovny) is the happily married father of two who still spends time with his boyhood friend Jerry (Benicio Del Toro), a heroin addict whose life is going down the tubes. They both know it, but only Steven seems to have any inclination to help turn Jerry’s life around.

Steven’s devotion to Jerry doesn’t always sit well with his wife, Audrey (Halle Berry). Audrey has never really warmed to Jerry, and she certainly doesn’t trust him – especially not around their children (winningly played by Alexis Llewellyn and Micah Berry).

When Brian is murdered in a senseless tragedy, Audrey’s world comes crashing down around her. So does Jerry’s. In the midst of grief, these two wounded souls wind up comforting each other in ways that neither could have expected.

Theirs is not a sexual relationship, although there exists some sexual tension between them, but a deeply fragmented emotional one. Life goes on without Steven, but both Audrey and Jerry are having difficulty accepting that.

Things We Lost in the Fire is the sort of meticulous and methodical movie that grows on you, sneaking up when you least expect it. Just like real life.

The audience is thrust into almost a voyeuristic stance, the camera capturing intimate (and sometimes shocking) moments in the characters’ lives, but never judging them. Bier has enough faith in the viewer not to preach to them – which is almost reason enough by itself to recommend the film.

When given good material, Berry is an actress to be reckoned with, and Del Toro’s is almost always a strong presence. Here, paired off against one another, each brings sizable resourcefulness and emotional depth to their roles. Both have already won Academy Awards, and these are the kinds of roles that attract further Academy attention.

The supporting performances are no less persuasive, with Duchovny delivering one of his best big-screen performances as the deceased dad. Throughout the film, we get to know Steven better through the other characters.

We’re not quite sure who Steven is at the outset, but by the end of the film – and with only a handful of flashback scenes after his demise – we have a clearer, better, more compassionate idea of who he was and what he meant to the people around him, particularly his wife, children and best friend.

There are also notable contributions from John Carroll Lynch as Steven’s “suburban” best friend, Alison Lohman as a fellow addict who takes a shine to Jerry, and Omar Benson Miller as Audrey’s dedicated brother.

At every turn, the film deftly sidesteps becoming wallowed in easy sentiment. Things We Lost in the Fire could have merely been a tearjerker, but it’s much more than that. Every emotion it elicits from the viewer is genuinely, and in some cases painstakingly, achieved. It’s not an easy film, but it is an immensely rewarding one.