I didn’t get around to a proper review of Things We Lost in the Fire last autumn, when it opened theatrically, though it wasn’t for lack of admiration for the movie. I guess I just knew, in my heart of hearts, that it was a certain commercial non-starter, and when Benicio Del Toro’s mesmerizing lead performance didn’t critically catch fire en masse and spark much awards talk, I unfortunately let it kind of drift away. My shameful mistake, really.
Written by Allan Loeb and directed by Susanne Bier, the movie centers on Audrey Burke (Halle Berry) who, after her husband Brian (David Duchovny) dies unexpectedly, develops and nurtures a symbiotic relationship of need and guilt with an old childhood friend of Brian’s, a recovering drug addict named Jerry Sunborne (Benico Del Toro). For reasons even she can’t fully articulate, Audrey invites Jerry to move out of the flophouse in which he’s staying, and come live with she and her two children. Still wounded by their dad’s sudden departure, 10-year-old Harper (Alexis Llewellyn) and 6-year-old Dory (Micah Berry) latch onto Jerry, and he to them. Jerry even gets help and a job offer from one of Brian’s friends (John Carroll Lynch), and strikes up a casual acquaintanceship with a fellow recovering addict (Alison Lohman) whom he crosses paths with in a 12-step meeting. And then… other stuff happens — big, yes, but mostly small. That logline suffices, since Things We Lost in the Fire is chiefly about coming back to life after loss, the unlikely blooms that develop after fields have been burned low.
It sounds weird, I realize, but one tangential, if esoteric, way to analyze/praise Things We Lost in the Fire is to say that it feels like an adaptation of one of Bier’s superlative Danish films (Family Matters, Open Hearts, Brothers, After the Wedding). It’s a movie that has the same intimacy and disarming honesty as much of her previous work, and that’s how easy and form-fitting the union of material and helmer feels.
The fractured structure of the film works to its advantage in that we don’t see “user Jerry” early in the movie; when he inevitably backslides (this is what addicts do, after all), it’s almost more of a shock than it should be. There’s not much here narratively that’s formally shocking, though it is intriguing to witness the movie indulge Audrey’s foregrounded resentment and anger toward Jerry to the hearty degree that it does. This is a bit of a change-up from the films of weepy, lean-on-me reconciliation that we’ve come to expect from Hollywood, and something I appreciated even if I found the character of Audrey still a bit of a cipher. Chiefly, though, Bier has the great benefit of Del Toro, whose eyes convey the force of an inner turmoil. There’s a whole other off-screen story in those eyes, and Jerry’s tale, while an uncomplicated one (a smart guy who dabbled in drugs and quickly got in over his head), is what gives this movie its pull. We witness how fragile and slippery the nature of recovery truly is, as well as how helping others heals ourselves.
Housed in a regular Amray case with snap-shut hinges, Things We Lost in the Fire comes presented in anamorphic widescreen, with its theatrical trailer and 12 minutes of previews for other Paramount titles, including Margot at the Wedding, Into the Wild, Beowulf and The Kite Runner. A collection of seven deleted scenes runs about nine-and-a-half minutes in total, including one big sequence that feels like it should’ve been left in — a scene where Audrey gives Jerry the cabinet she was working on before her husband’s death, and confesses an argument in which she believed him to have stolen money out of her car. The only other supplemental bonus feature is a 20-minute “discussion” about the movie with interview snippets from all of its principal players, including Berry, Duchovny, Del Toro and Bier, as well as writer Loeb and producers Sam Mercer and Sam Mendes. There are plenty of insights and interesting tidbits herein (Berry talks about trying to find “different levels of shock” for her character, which I’d argue that perhaps she doesn’t do), but the Achilles heel of this piece is that too many clips from the movie — far more than necessary for illustrative purposes — are interspersed between the interviews, ruining any delicate sense of flow or momentum. To purchase the DVD via Amazon, click here. B+ (Movie) B- (Disc)