If the death and drug addiction don't persuade you that Things We Lost in the Fire is heavy stuff, then Danish director Susanne Bier's painfully self-conscious close-ups of wary eyes and hands threaded in anxiety can telegraph her characters' inner pain.
Fretful, suffering people populate Bier's American debut film. The residents of Things We Lost in the Fire have every reason to be distraught. Audrey Burke (Halle Berry) has just lost her devoted husband Brian (David Duchovny) in a senseless crime.
An unlikely savior for Audrey and her young children arrives when Brian's lifelong friend Jerry (Benicio Del Toro) shows up at his funeral. Jerry is a heroin addict who Brian refused to abandon through the worst of times. Clutching at this reminder of her dead husband, Audrey offers Jerry a spare room at her family's home, and something between seduction and therapy emerges from their time together.
In the film's neat parallels, Audrey and Jerry are both working through their intertwined tribulations: grief and heroin. Audrey has lost her husband and Jerry everything in his life, but his experience with addiction allows him to coach her through the darkness. That coaching entails Jerry stroking her ear lobe and (platonically) cuddling Audrey so she can sleep, in one of the film's most painfully awkward moments.
Like Jodie Foster in The Brave One, it's Benicio Del Toro who gives Things We Lost any semblance of truth it possesses. Del Toro's seductive, finely wrought performance gives psychological rigor to a film that often feels inauthentic. There is something in Jerry's seen-it-all humor, his lumbering gait, his lack of concern with how he appears and his teenage devotion to the Velvet Underground played full blast on his headphones that beautifully expresses his remove from the rhythms of the world.
As the emotionally blocked widow, Berry has the more one-dimensional and often frustrating character, one who expresses loss by lashing out at the conveniently close-by Jerry. But Bier's decision to shoot Berry as a succession of beautiful, fragmented body parts in extreme close-ups of her ear, eyes, lips and torso also hamper our acceptance of Audrey as a vital character.
Without trivializing death into some cultural "moment," Things We Lost reflects the ballooning trend for this year's Feel Bad films such as The Brave One, which address the lingering effects of grief and loss. But loss is one of the harder concepts to convey on screen and one more susceptible to chronic incoherence. Screenwriter Allan Loeb hinders the expression of deeper nuances of grief with his ear for new-agey, self-help koans such as Jerry's "accept the good."
Filled with dialogue that strains credibility and pregnant moments that yield little insight, Loeb's writing shows visible difficulty in registering both the family's cozy happiness when Brian is around and their pain in his absence. Loeb's decision to tell the story in a nonlinear fashion, moving back and forth between past and present, serves to impede the story's progress rather than illuminate Brian's character.
Fraught with the kind of sexual tension generated by two erotically charismatic actors such as Berry and Del Toro avoiding the act itself, Things We Lost in the Fire favors the bond of human suffering over the bond of desire. Beir's film proves reminiscent of Monster's Ball, which won Berry her Oscar, but lacks that film's gritty sex or the utterly convincing, enveloping gloom that gave its fully realized characters so much reason to despair.
The fire of the title comes into play late in the film and serves as the emotional trigger that allows Audrey's teary catharsis. Like so much of this film's emotional pitch, it comes out of nowhere. Things We Lost in the Fire is a Hollywood film grasping for the sense of authenticity so evident in the American independent cinema and art house. Its failure to reach that mark makes the film even more about loss than its writer and director may ever have imagined.
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