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Arts & Culture

Things We Lost in the Fire

Things We Lost in the Fire moves back and forth in time as it weaves the story of grief, loss and recovery. At the core of the film are three people: Steven (David Duchocney), his wife Audrey (Halle Berry) and his friend since childhood Jerry (Benicio Del Toro). Audrey has always resented her husband's friendship with Jerry, and she's never been able to understand it. Steven is a successful designer/architect and Jerry's a longtime addict. The distance, in terms of lifestyles, between the two men keeps growing, but Steven maintains the friendship, offering support and occasional food and money. Audrey considers Steven's time with Jerry as time he could better spend with her or their two kids.

Halle Berry in Things We Lost in the Fire (Dreamworks/Paramount)

One night, Steven tries to break up a domestic fight on the street and he's shot and killed. Audrey and the family are devastated. Despite her feelings of resentment, Audrey invites Jerry to the funeral. His presence is oddly comforting. He is someone who knew Steven as well as she did and who feels his loss as deeply. Audrey offers Jerry their empty garage as a place to stay. This leads to Jerry forming a friendship with the kids and attempting to kick his drug habit. But the road ahead for both Jerry and Audrey proves rocky.

What's refreshing about Things We Lost in the Fire is the way it avoids cliches. Currently in theaters we have an abundance of grief on display in films such as Reservation Road, Rendition and We Own the Night. But in those films, every predictable emotion is played out and everything comes round to a reassuring if not necessarily happy ending. In Things We Lost in the Fire, director Susanne Bier and writer Allan Loeb avoid a lot of the twists and turns we expect. For one, there's a emotional honesty in the way the relationship between Audrey and Jerry plays out. At one point Audrey bluntly tells Jerry that it should have been him that was killed, not Steven. Later, when Jerry helps one of the kids learn to dunk his head underwater, we expect Audrey to be thankful. But instead she rails against him because that was a milestone that Steven should have experienced. The filmmakers also show that recovery from drug addiction is hard and that falling back into addiction, despite good intentions and support, is easy. Plus, the scenes between Steven and Audrey don't serve up an idyllic relationship about to be shattered by tragedy. That's what is too often found in films such as The Brave One or Death Sentence, where the filmmakers seek to heighten the tragedy by making everything about the victims' lives seem perfect.

David Duchovny and Benicio Del Toro (Dreamworks/Paramount)

Adding to the unconventional slant of the film is the casting of Benicio Del Toro. Del Toro is by no means a conventional leading man -- just consider his performances in The Usual Suspects, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Sin City, Snatch, 21 Grams and Traffic. But he has a knack for getting under the skin of a character and making those characters totally believable. He achieves this yet again with Jerry. He makes him sympathetic despite his flaws and maneuvers through tricky emotional terrain with deft skill. He's also good at observing. While many actors want to grab attention and impress with histrionics, Del Toro is often content to be an observer in a scene or to silently react to what's going on. Yet in those silences he still conveys the internal life of his character. His performance as Jerry is one of the best of his career, and he anchors the film with his honest portrayal.

Casting Duchovny proves smart as well. Since Steven doesn't have a lot of scenes, casting an actor with an established appeal provides a shorthand for creating a character that we immediately feel an attachment too. Berry's performance is good but it falls into the Monster Ball realm of "look at me I took off my make up and I'm acting." Plenty of other actresses could have done this better, but the fact that it's Halle Berry brings more buzz and attention.

Halle Berry and Benicio Del Toro (Dreamworks/Paramount)

As a director, Bier gets the emotions right but fails to come up with a visual style that's equally satisfying. She frequently employs a handheld camera and suffocatingly close shots of actors' faces (sometimes just an eye). Maybe she wants to explore the landscape of the human face, but instead it plays out as a claustrophobic and monotonous visual motif. But as with her Danish films, Things We Lost in the Fire presents us with believable relationships, and with a graceful ability to peel back the layers of a character to reveal something unexpected underneath.

Things We Lost in the Fire arrives amidst a number of films dealing with loss and how people cope. The Brave One, Death Sentence and We Own the Night all suggest varying degrees of revenge. Reservation Road , In the Valley of Elah and Things We Lost in the Fire suggest something else. But all of them may in a way be a reaction to the war and to the fact that people are trying to cope with grief and loss in reaction to something very specific in their world right now. Films don't always respond to real world events in the most obvious fashion. Back in 1990, some speculated that the success of the Jerry Zucker comedy Ghost might have been because it was arrived during the first Gulf War and people responded to the film's story about a woman coming to terms with the death of her husband. Maybe that doesn't sound reasonable, but films do have an odd way of sometimes addressing issues without fully realizing it. This current crop of films in their shared themes of grief and loss may be tapping into or reflecting a larger sense of grief and loss that this country is feeling as the fighting in Iraq continues and families try to cope with the deaths of loved ones.

Things We Lost in the Fire (rated R for drug content and language) is the best of the recent crop of films about coping with loss. It also boasts a quietly riveting performance by Benicio Del Toro. In the film, Duchovny's character has a favorite saying: "Accept the good." Things We Lost in the Fire has flaws but take Steven's advice and "accept the good." There's enough good to make it worth seeing.

Companion viewing: After the Wedding, Brothers, 21 Grams

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