Based on the melodramatic-seeming trailer that told most of the movie's story in its two-and-a-half minutes, I had fairly low expectations for Susanne Bier's directorial follow-up to her Oscar-nominated After the Wedding. But Things We Lost in the Fire far exceeded those expectations. Aided by some solid performances and wise directional decisions, the movie is less cheesy and more potent than the trailer suggests.
The story starts out dreary and sentimental, then kicks into high drama and deep sadness, then it's horrifying, and then back to very sad, where it ends. There is redemption, but little joy to this story. The narrative begins with the funeral of Steven Burke (David Duchovny), which I think is a questionable move because watching people mourn without giving the audience any reason yet to be sad along with the characters creates an empty, pointless feeling. But the characters go on to earn our sympathy, and through a series of flashbacks interspersed with present-day action we are absorbed into this world of Steven's grieving widow Audrey (Halle Berry), their two children, and Steven's best friend — the down-and-out recovering drug addict Jerry Sunborne (Benicio Del Toro). For more about the story and my take on it,
Though she spent years mistrusting and disliking him, Audrey invites the quiet Jerry to live with her and the children in the garage that was damaged in a fire and never entirely finished before Steven's death. Once he moves in, Jerry is simply given things — a job and furniture from family friend Howard (John Carroll Lynch), the love and affection of Steven's kids — because they all loved Steven, and because Jerry knew him in a way nobody else did.
What I appreciate most about this movie is the character of Audrey, which Berry portrays as graceful and conflicted. It is so refreshing to find a true-to-life, complex female movie character. She's a caring mother and a sympathetic person, but she also acts in incomprehensible ways, making impulsive decisions fueled by grief and lack of sleep that seem heartbreakingly rash but also deeply human. At one point she demands that Jerry move out of the garage, which leads to Jerry relapsing, a most upsetting part of the film.
Certainly, I have some quibbles with the film. Steven's character is a little too goody-two-shoes to be believable, even up to his heroic death — getting shot while trying to protect a woman from her abusive husband. I'm also sure that after Audrey tells us all about the things they lost in the garage fire, two scenes later we don't need an actual written-out list of things they lost in the fire, as it just seems irritatingly redundant.
Yet these things are overshadowed by the beautiful direction (complete with perfectly-chosen music, from soothing flute to a sorrowful Spanish guitar to the steely blues that Jerry often pumps through his headphones) and some near-perfect performances. Del Toro does well with these gorgeously flawed characters, and his depiction of Jerry's relapse brings tears to my eyes even now. This isn't a breezy, escapist film, but it is very moving and lovingly crafted.
Photos courtesy of Paramount