Emotions Ring True in Tale of Loss and Grief

Garineh Demirjian

Denmark’s Susanne Bier, who directed last year’s Oscar-nominated, “After the Wedding” makes her English-language debut with “Things We Lost in the Fire,” a film that while sometimes overly sentimental shines through with flashes of emotional honesty.

The script is by Allan Loeb, who makes his feature debut.

The film moves back and forth in time as it weaves a story of loss, grief and recovery.

At the core of the film are three people: Steven (David Duchovny), his wife Audrey (Halle Berry) and his friend since childhood Jerry (Benicio Del Toro). Audrey has always resented and never been able to understand her husband’s friendship with Jerry. Steven is a successful designer/architect and Jerry’s a longtime heroin addict.

The distance, in terms of lifestyles, between the two men keeps growing, but Steven maintains the friendship, offering support and occasional food and money. Audrey considers Steven’s time with Jerry as time better spent with her or their two kids.

One night, Steven tries to break up a domestic fight on the street and he’s shot and killed. Audrey and the family are devastated. Despite her feelings of resentment, Audrey invites Jerry to the funeral. His presence is oddly comforting. He is someone who knew Steven as well as she did and who feels his loss as deeply. Audrey offers Jerry their empty garage as a place to stay. This leads Jerry to form a friendship with the kids and to attempt to kick his drug habit. But the road ahead for both Jerry and Audrey proves rocky.

At one point Audrey bluntly tells Jerry that it should have been him was killed rather than Steven. Later, when Jerry helps one of the kids learn to dunk his head underwater, we expect Audrey to be thankful. But instead she rails against him because that was a milestone that Steven should have experienced.

Adding excellent acting and drama to the film is the casting of Benicio Del Toro. Del Toro is not a conventional leading man. Consider his performances in “The Usual Suspects,” “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” and “Traffic.” He has a knack for getting under the skin of a character and making those characters totally believable. He achieves this yet again with Jerry. He makes him sympathetic, despite his flaws. He’s also good at observing. Del Toro is often content to be an observer in a scene or to silently react to what’s going on. Yet in those silences he still conveys the internal life of his character. His performance as Jerry is one of the best of his career.

Casting Duchovny proves smart as well. Since Steven doesn’t have a lot of scenes, casting an actor with an established appeal proves to be a smart decision for creating a character that we immediately feel an attachment too.

Berry’s performance is good but it’s not her greatest work by far. Plenty of other actresses could have done this better, but the fact that it’s Halle Berry brings more buzz and attention. Her character is one-dimensional, there’s a predictable staginess to the performance; we know exactly when and where Audrey will have the kind of breakdown that involves throwing things.

That’s not to say she’s awful. But winning an Oscar (for “Monster’s Ball”) tends to shed a very bright light on future performances, and this one feels too studied to be true. When Berry is on camera, you admire how she looks in the surroundings. When Del Toro’s on camera, you’re aware of him, not the space around him.

“Things We Lost in the Fire,” rated R for drug content and language, is an excellent movie about coping with loss. It also boasts a riveting performance by Benicio Del Toro. In the film Duchovny’s character has a favorite saying “accept the good.”

“Things We Lost in the Fire” has flaws but take Steven’s advice and “accept the good.” There’s enough good in this movie to make it worth seeing.
Rating *** out of 4

Running time: 119 minutes
Playing at area theaters.
Release Company: Paramount
Produced by: Sam Mendes
Supporting actors include: Alexis Llewellyn, Micah Berry, John Carroll Lynch, Alison Lohman, Robin Weigert, Omar Benson Miller, Paula Newsome, Sarah Dubrovsky, Maureen Thomas, Patricia Harras, V.J. Foster, and Caroline Field