As her last film, After the Funeral, ably demonstrated, Danish director Susanne Bier toes the line between mawkish melodrama and unvarnished human emotion. Now, in her Hollywood debut, she once again zooms in uncomfortably close on her cast's eyes, ears, lips and fingers, capturing ... well, who knows what. The rocky pores dotting Benicio Del Toro's mug? The porcelain perfection of Halle Berry's cheek? One assumes a betrayed moment of honesty, unforced by dreams of winning an Oscar.
Things We Lost in the Fire is a glossy, inelegant, strangely inert film that boasts terrific performances, moments of real emotion and a third act that avoids cheap posturing and neat conclusions. It's a decidedly mixed bag, but if Allan Loeb's highly regarded script is to be commended, it's for pulling on your heartstrings without shamelessly manipulating your emotions.
Grief-stricken Audrey Burke (Halle Berry) struggles to cope with the tragic death of her saintly husband Brian (David Duchovny) by taking in his childhood best friend Jerry Sunborne (Benicio Del Toro), a lawyer turned heroin addict. Damaged but decent, Jerry tries to play surrogate father to Brian's kids while soothing Audrey's wounded heart. But the monkey's still on his back and grief's road is never smooth. Audrey's heartache turns to anger and emotional conflicts lead to crippling setbacks for both of them.
Though Things We Lost flirts with genre conventions about grief and addiction, Loeb mostly thwarts expectations with his sincere and occasionally incisive writing. Similarly, he and Bier allow the relationships to carefully evolve, creating moments that are wholly authentic yet frustratingly undramatic. Their approach means well but the film too often comes off as didactic and even maudlin ("Am I ever going to be happy? Am I ever going to feel beautiful?").
More problematic are the story's contrivances and unexplained reversals. Duchovny makes enough of an impression as Brian that we feel his absence but are hamstrung by an unassailably saintly persona. He registers less as a human being and more as an ideal: the husband as superman.
Audrey is also frustratingly opaque, with emotional shifts that are as sudden as they are unexplained. From the start we're expected to swallow that she'd impulsively invite Jerry a drug addict she has long despised to come live with her and her children. Fair enough, films have asked audiences to accept far worse. But when she reverses her course on Jerry not once but twice we have to wonder if plot mechanics are overshadowing character development.
Similarly, with Loeb's choice to focus on upscale anguish the suffering of rich people who can afford to indulge in their emotions and loss he's lost the opportunity to really challenge his characters' resolve. One wonders how much better the story might've played without Audrey's insane wealth to keep everything neat and focused.
Shortcomings aside, the cast provides some of the year's most memorable performances. Berry, juggling a character who swings from deeply compassionate to blisteringly unpleasant, shows a palpable sense of loss. She might not handle the emotional shifts so well, but her Audrey is believable and sympathetic.
Del Toro is nothing short of astonishing. Soulful, broken but proud, he avoids shameless overemoting to portray drug addiction as an intensely personal demon. It's a brilliant turn that channels his bizarrely alien approach to character into something authentic. We learn little of Jerry's past or why he threw his life away, but there's never any doubt that we're watching a real person struggle with profound changes. In the films' lengthy cold turkey scene, Del Toro underplays the pain and drama it becomes a convincingly personal battle.
The supporting cast is equally good, with Omar Benson Miller as Berry's brother and John Carroll Lynch providing some believably comic relief. Alison Lohman stands out in the film's best written and most touching scene. As an ex-junkie invited to dinner, she challenges the family to talk about Brian by asking blunt but honest questions. The scene has the kind of effortless warmth and compassion that the rest of the film struggles to find but only occasionally achieves.
Ultimately, Things We Lost In The Fire suffers from clunky segues and implausible conceits but deserves praise for its earnest look at the importance of friends and family in the process of healing and how inner strength must be cultivated and rediscovered.