Complicated and raw, Things We Lost in the Fire observes those we lean on in times of loss. Because the story attracted acclaimed Danish director Susanne Bier
, we assume that fate's cruel nature plays a part in the narrative -- Bier loves to burrow under the skin of suffering characters whose lives are destroyed by chance.
In this instance, suburban father and all-around good guy Brian (David Duchovny
) heads to the store to grab ice cream for wife Audrey (Halle Berry
) and their two children. In the parking lot, he encounters a distraught husband beating the tar out of his defenseless spouse. Brian intervenes, and the Good Samaritan is rewarded with a fatal bullet to the chest. Article continues below
As Fire progresses, Bier allows her relationships to breathe. Flashbacks fill in details about Brian's life so that his death means something to us, the outsiders looking in. We discover that Brian's loyalty to childhood friend Jerry (Benicio Del Toro
) was a bone of contention with Audrey. Jerry is a heroine addict who traded his law practice for a shack on skid row. He attends Brian's wake, provides comfort for the deceased's grieving kids, and accepts Audrey's invitation to stay for a while in the family's newly restored garage.
Where is Fire heading? You'll never be able to guess for sure. Allan Loeb's script flirts with conventional paths -- a physical relationship is hinted at between Audrey and Jerry. For a bit of time, Fire becomes a redemption project for the repentant addict. It's touching, but its lack of definite direction is both plausible and regrettable.
All the while, Bier uses extreme close-ups on eyes, lips, ears, and fingers as they brush across skin. Perhaps it is meant to capture honesty at the point it exits the body? The more she uses these tricks, however, the more aware of them you become, which takes you out of the moment.
Bier also joins the short list of filmmakers able to coax a solid performance from Berry, who displays those acting chops we see once every couple of years. The Oscar winner's career to date has been inconsistent at best. For every Monster's Ball, she participates in a Catwoman, Swordfish, or Perfect Stranger from earlier his year.
Fire features a memorably unglamorous and refreshingly authentic Berry. It's possible she's merely feeding off Del Toro, a commanding actor who rarely receives the amount of credit he deserves. In the past, actors playing drug addicts have viewed the role as a free pass to over-emote. Del Toro takes the opposite path, holding Jerry's demons so close to the vest that they threaten to suffocate him from within. When he is given a lengthy detoxification scene, Del Toro gives just enough to convince us of the pain without making it painful to sit through.
Watching Fire can almost be compared to pitching a tent. The film has two strong support rods in Berry and Del Toro, and Bier maneuvers them into place beneath a sprawling but misshapen canvas. As her "beams" take root in the ground and reach for the sky, they produce a middle section that bobs and sags until all the right ropes are pulled and properly anchored. Now, if someone can explain how a schmo like Duchonvy ends up with a beauty like Berry...