Watching a widow grieve her loss and a user recover from his heroin addiction is not the usual Hollywood fare. But Things We Lost in the Fire explores these gut-wrenching struggles with candor and maturity and without a clichéd happy ending. There is much that is right about this film; it is a shame that it tries a bit too hard and falls a bit short.
Audrey Burke (Halle Berry) early in the movie learns that her adored (and too perfect) husband, Brian (David Duchovny) has been tragically killed. Audrey and her two children Harper (Alexis Llewellyn) and Dory (Micah Berry) live very comfortably in an upscale suburb of Seattle, far from the drug-infested alleyways and SRO hotels that are home to her husband’s childhood friend, Jerry Sunborne (Benicio Del Toro), a former lawyer, and now heroin addict.
Despite Audrey’s prior hostility to Jerry and her failure to understand her husband’s stalwart commitment to him, she asks Jerry to move into her unused garage-studio. At this point, the film loses credibility with me. The rationale for Audrey’s sudden kindness to Jerry is never explored or explained. It could be a way to honor her husband’s memory or a means of continuing to feel close to her husband, but one must accept Audrey’s act without a clear understanding of her 180 degree shift.
As the film progresses, Audrey becomes less frosty to Jerry and her grieving children begin to look to Jerry as a surrogate father–a role with which he is rightly uncomfortable. Audrey also needs comfort and invites Jerry into her bed to hold her as Brian did, just to help her fall asleep. This is another inexplicable note in the film, given her recent antagonism to him.
After Jerry is helped and befriended by an improbably kind neighbor (well played by John Carroll Lynch), and has just passed the mortgage broker’s license exam, Audrey, in a fit of temper, throws Jerry out of the garage and back to the streets (another false note). Upon learning from Jerry’s Narcotics Anonymous friend (Alison Lohman) that he has relapsed, Audrey rescues him and goes to extraordinary efforts to help him with his recovery.
Jerry’s struggles with drugs are the most powerful scenes in the movie. In fact, whenever Benicio Del Toro is on screen, the film takes on immediacy and strength. His performance is superb. Halle Berry is excellent as Audrey, but she is overshadowed by Del Toro’s talent and intensity.
The multi-racial casting of Things We Lost in the Fire is long overdue, especially since race is never raised as an issue in the film. The interactions between Audrey’s African American family and Brian’s white relatives are unselfconscious and natural and help to make the film feel authentic. Omar Benson Miller, as Audrey’s brother, has great presence on the screen. Alexis Llewellyn and Micah Berry, who play the children, never overact; they always seem like real, multi-dimensional kids going through a tough time.
Susanne Bier(Brothers, After the Wedding), a Danish director in her first American effort, has made some choices in shooting the film that seem designed to make it “arty” or “creative”, but wind up being annoying. Many times during the film, the screen is completely filled with lingering shots of Audrey or Jerry’s eyes, or Audrey’s ears or face. After the first few of these shots, the remainder do nothing but slow down the pace and drama of the movie.
Things We lost in the Fire is an adult film that presents an unflinching, realistic view of the processes of recovering from loss of a spouse and recovering from a drug addition. It doesn’t provide easy solutions or resolutions to either of these overwhelming tragedies. The relationship between Audrey and Jerry, as they cope with their sorrows, is complex and difficult, but never stagnant, and Berry and Del Toro bring great intensity to their roles. I just wish that some of the characters’ motivations had rung truer, the film didn’t try so hard to be “arty” and that it had been a half hour shorter.