Things We Lost In the Fire
Audrey (Halle Berry) has forgotten to invite Jerry (Benicio del Toro) to the wake. It's a terrible oversight - he was Brian's best friend - but an understandable omission. She never understood the relationship. Nobody likes to see a loved one hanging out with a junkie.
Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier has established a reputation for weighty character dramas on the back of the Dogme title Open Hearts, Brothers, and the Oscar-nominated After the Wedding. Her first US movie (shot in Vancouver, Canada) is fraught with high emotion. It's a film about grief, and it's a film about addiction.
Are these two sides of the same dependency coin? Not really, but screenwriter Allan Loeb makes the case that Audrey would "adopt" Jerry, inviting him to move into her garage-apartment, in part to honour her late husband's love for this man, and to alleviate her own feelings of emptiness, loneliness and despair.
It helps that Jerry is your atypical charming, thoughtful, generous, honest junkie, great with Audrey's kids (Alexis Llewellyn and Micah Berry), and in one, possibly ill-advised scene, willing to give her a cuddle when she can't sleep at night, without stepping over any boundaries. An actor who can play clumsiness with great finesse, del Toro has a craggy, hung-over sensitivity that's very appealing. Even in the cold turkey scenes he finds an intelligent levity that's justified by Jerry's background as a lawyer.
Audrey, on the other hand, is relatively unsympathetic. Sure, her actions are altruistic, but she's the first to say her motives are selfish. In her best performance since Monster's Ball, Berry seethes with the irrational resentment and anger of the recently bereaved. Too often in Hollywood pictures she's so glossily gorgeous there doesn't seem to be anyone there. Here she's not wearing any make up, literally or metaphorically; she's a much more interesting actress when she allows herself to get ugly like this (emotionally, that is).
Bier's technique involves plenty of rehearsal and improvisation, multiple handheld cameras, and jump cuts, but she also loves to get in really close to her actors; the movie is full of widescreen eyes, staring back at us, tired and sorrowful. The grammar is more intimate and probing than the norm - at times it's like she stealing unguarded feelings and inflections - even if the screenplay is only a whisker away from cliché.
Here's what doesn't work: repeated flashbacks involving Brian (David Duchovny) with Audrey or Jerry only kill the movie's momentum, they're overly manipulative and simplistic, painting Brian in such virtuous colours it's odd Bier doesn't give these sequences a rose tint. It's as if they thought we could only understand Audrey's pain if her husband were a saint - which is nonsense of course.
There's a surprising and welcome humorous tone to offset the mopiness, especially in the scenes involving the kids, and those with John Carroll Lynch as Audrey's neighbour. Last seen as a likely suspect in Zodiac, Lynch exudes blokey bonhomie here as he pulls a reluctant Jerry along into Brian's jogging routine.
In the end, Things We Lost in the Fire is the kind of half-honest melodrama that can help us muddle through times of tribulation. The script isn't as strong as some of Bier's own previous efforts, but it's still worth seeing for Benicio del Toro's engaging performance.
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