Things We Lost in the Fire (United States, 2007)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Things We Lost in the Fire represents Danish-born Susanne Bier's first foray into studio-funded American cinema. The transition is seamless - Bier's signature style of simple shots and frequent close-ups remains intact and her choice of material focuses on the interaction between damaged and grieving people. Those who saw Bier's previous feature, After the Wedding, will recognize similar rhythms in this one. (Literal as well as figurative - Bier has "imported" composer Johan Söderqvist with her.) Although the subject matter is serious and the tone is predominantly somber, Bier includes enough moments of subdued levity to keep this movie from falling into the "feel bad" category. Nonetheless, this is not a good choice if you're looking for a lighthearted night at the movies.

When the film opens, Brian (David Duchovny) is already dead. It's his funeral. Attending are friends, family, and neighbors. Brian's wife, Audrey (Halle Berry), appears to be bearing up well, although cracks in her façade are occasionally evident. Her children, Harper (Alexis Llewellyn) and Dory (Micah Berry), remain apart from the adults, swinging quietly on a swing set. A brooding presence is Jerry (Benicio Del Toro), Brian's oldest friend. A recovering heroin addict, Jerry recognizes that Brian was the only one who stuck with him through the hard times. Now, he wants to be there for Brian's family but the complications that arise make that easier said than done.

We meet Brian through a series of flashbacks that provide us with a glimpse of his family's life in happier times. He and Audrey appear to be the perfect husband and wife. Brian is a loving father and a good friend, but he meets his end when his good Samaritan impulses put him in a fatal situation. Audrey cannot face the prospect of moving on without Brian, so she blocks out the reality of what has happened. She shuts the door to his computer room, refuses to sort through his clothing, and invites Jerry to live in the garage-turned-apartment. Audrey uses Jerry as a stand-in for Brian, even going so far as to ask him to lie next to her in bed and stroke her earlobe (something that Brian did to induce sleep). But when the children warm to Jerry and begin to view him as a father figure, Audrey's jealousy bubbles to the surface.

The film deals with grief and addiction and what happens when these two powerful forces interact. Ultimately, it's also about recovery, redemption, and healing. The relationship between Audrey and Jerry is complex. While Brian was alive, Audrey despised Jerry because of the hold he had on her husband. After Brian's death, she seeks solace through aiding Jerry but, even by her admission, she doesn't know what she wants from him. Her initial contact with Jerry may seem well intentioned but it turns poisonous.

Things We Lost in the Fire deals frankly and openly with the wounds - some obvious, some not so obvious - that are left by the tragic, untimely loss of a loved one. At times, the film is unsparing. There are instances in which Audrey takes unpleasant actions and says unkind words, but we understand that those things spring from a deep wellspring of pain. Also, importantly, the children are not relegated to a place of secondary importance. They are key individuals in this story, as entwined in circumstances as Audrey and Jerry.

Bier's infatuation with frequent, oddly-placed close-ups will be noticeable even to those who don't usually pick up on camera choices. Her favorite subject is the eyes, the "windows into the soul" - clearly, she likes peering through those blinds on a regular basis. But the camera also lingers on fingers, toes, ears, and other body parts. The point is to provide the viewer with an almost uncomfortable sense of intimacy. Sometimes, it's effective but there are instances when the technique calls attention to itself and is distracting. (I was equally ambivalent about it in After the Wedding.)

This is easily Halle Berry's most serious portrayal since Monsters Ball and a clear attempt on her part to remind us that she's more than just a pretty face. After a string of miserable choices, Things We Lost in the Fire provides ample evidence that Berry has more than one strong performance in her. Benicio Del Toro finds himself once again in a sober drama, although this one isn't as bleak as 21 Grams. The actor's past work has shown that he's up to any challenge, and his interpretation here re-asserts that impression. Mention should also be made of the two child actors, Alexis Llewellyn and Micah Berry, who show none of the awkwardness that often accompanies performances by girls and boys of their ages.

With Gone Baby Gone opening the same weekend, the multiplex has suddenly become a good place for serious, adult drama. Things We Lost in the Fire is emotionally challenging and honest. There are no easy ways out for the characters and, at one time or another, we find ourselves feeling deeply for all of them (except perhaps Brian who appears as an almost sainted figure through the memories of others). As a means of entrance into Hollywood, Things We Lost in the Fire provides Susanne Bier with an impressive calling card. Her last feature was on this year's Oscar nominees' menu; it would be unsurprising if this picture was represented at next year's banquet in some fashion.

Things We Lost in the Fire (United States, 2007)

Director: Susanne Bier
Cast: Halle Berry, Benicio Del Toro, David Duchovny, Alexis Llewellyn, Micah Berry, John Carroll Lynch, Alison Lohman
Screenplay: Allan Loeb
Cinematography: Tom Stern
Music: Johan Söderqvist
U.S. Distributor: Dreamworks
Run Time: 2:00
U.S. Release Date: 2007-10-19
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Drugs)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1