DVD Release Date: March 4, 2008
Theatrical Release Date: October 19, 2007
Rating: R (for drug content and language)
Run Time: 112 min.
Director: Susanne Bier
Actors: David Duchovny, Halle Berry, Benicio del Toro, John Carroll Lynch, Alison Lohman
“Accept the good.”
That’s the moral of Things We Lost in the Fire, and although the characters’ ideas of good aren’t consciously grounded in the ultimate Good, director Susanne Bier’s drama is tough to shake. Its frank acknowledgement of human frailty, and its stark portrayal of grief and recovery, make for a memorable look into the deep grief borne of tragedy.
Commercially, the film presents a challenge—will audiences be eager to sit through a story of personal devastation?—but powerhouse performances from Benicio del Toro as a recovering drug addict and Halle Berry as a grieving widow give the subject matter a compelling immediacy.
The first few moments of Fire are an uneasy mix of portent and sentiment. Husband and father Brian Burke (David Duchovny) takes an evening walk with his child, as tinkling piano music on the soundtrack dictates the preciousness of the situation. It’s cloying, but short-lived. Not only does the film begin jumping in time, but the unsteady camerawork keeps us unsettled as the story unfolds.
The story takes an ominous turn, flashing forward to Brian’s wake (we’re not sure how he died), where childhood friend Jerry Sunborne (Benicio del Toro) greets Brian’s widow, Audrey (Halle Berry). There’s a long history between them, but it’s not romantic. Brian had kept an eye on Jerry, a drug addict, over the years, but being a friend to the friendless has taken a toll on Jerry’s relationship with Audrey, who fears what might happen to Brian every time he meets up with his old pal. Still, Brian reaches out to the drug-addled Jerry. “He’s my friend,” he explains to Audrey. “He gives; he doesn’t always take.”
It’s during an outing with one of his children—not during one of his visits to Jerry—that Brian’s Good-Samaritan instincts get him into trouble. Intervening in a domestic dispute, he’s killed, leaving behind his wife and two kids—and the troubled Jerry.
Audrey doesn’t fully trust Jerry, but in need of assistance around the house—and companionship—she offers him a place to stay. “I’m the one who needs help here,” she tells him. With her support, and the expressed confidence in him by family friend Howard (John Carroll Lynch), Jerry begins to build a new life. “I’m not good at facing my fears,” Howard tells Jerry. “I’m not strong, like you.”
Belief in a Higher Power is a crucial part of recovery, and Things We Lost in the Fire doesn’t shy away from it. When Jerry seeks out a support group for drug addicts, he meets Kelly (Alison Lohman)—a cross-wearing addict who encourages Jerry to stay through to the end of each meeting, and to recite the Serenity Prayer with the others. But Jerry’s inner struggles with drug addiction keep him at arm’s length from Kelly—and from God. In a moment of brutal honesty, he confesses that only drugs give him a sense of “total, utter peace”—a declaration that would be more chilling if it weren’t also the sort of frank recognition addicts must acknowledge before they can truly get past their dependence.
Audrey, meanwhile, must fight her own urges to escape from reality, and help Jerry again after lashing out at him in anger. Her loneliness and neediness draw Jerry to her, but her beauty tempts him to transgress the trust she’s placed in him. In another sign of this film’s unique power, it doesn’t settle for easy romantic fixes, presenting Jerry’s opportunity as yet another temptation he must overcome.
Fire is not a perfect film. Scenes of Jerry trying to kick his habit drag on, and the discussion of adultery—both real and imagined—is too frank at times. Director Bier’s stylistic tics—she repeatedly frames the human eye in close-up and employs a shaky, cinema-verite style—take some getting used to, but her choice of material is tough to fault. Here, and in her Danish films (After the Wedding, Brothers), she takes an unflinching look at family struggles.
Fire is a film of tremendous performances. Del Toro shines as Jerry, particularly in the scenes between Jerry and Audrey’s children, and Berry stages a major comeback after the dismal Perfect Stranger and the earlier Catwoman. Best of all are the story’s themes—recognition of weakness, and personal reconciliation. While Things We Lost in the Fire is not oriented around faith, its characters exhibit Christ-likeness at times, reaching out to widows and to those in desperate need.
Things are not rosy for everyone at the conclusion of Things We Lost in the Fire, but each character—and each viewer—has been offered something good.
Accept the good.
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- Language/Profanity: Lord’s name taken in vain; some profanity; discussion of adultery, both real and imagined
- Sex/Nudity: Husband and wife kiss passionately and are shown in bed, in their night clothes; woman swims in a skimpy bikini; a woman invites a man into her bed but nothing sexual occurs
- Drinking/Smoking: The aftermath of binge drinking is shown; drug use is discussed and shown; harrowing scenes of drug detoxing
- Violence: A man is shot and killed
- Religion: Strong theme of being given a second chance; recitation and discussion of the “Serenity Prayer” by drug addicts; necklaces include prominent cross pendants