by HELEN GEIB
Things We Lost in the Fire is an unfocused film that doesn’t deliver on its initial promise. The skilled direction by Susanne Bier and confident performances by Benicio Del Toro and Halle Berry create many strong moments, but the plot is unrealistic and the story ultimately is mired in contrivances.
The first half of Things We Lost in the Fire is an emotionally affecting study of grief. The movie begins at Steven’s wake. Steven (David Duchovny) left behind widow Audrey (Berry), best friend Jerry (Del Toro), two children and a large circle of bereaved family and friends. Several extended flashbacks establish Steven and Audrey’s happy marriage and close, loving family. Their near-perfect family life and glossy upper-upper-middle class lifestyle threaten to become overly idealized, but the performances keep the characters believable. There are also flashbacks to Steven and Jerry’s friendship. Best friends from childhood, their close connection has survived Jerry’s narcotics addiction because of Steven’s unwavering loyalty.
Mistrustful of Jerry and resentful of the family time given over to him when her husband was alive, Audrey is drawn to him after the funeral by the overwhelming force of their profound shared grief. Jerry accepts Audrey’s insistent invitation to live in her garage apartment and becomes a sort of member of the family on approval.
This plot device raises intriguing questions about Audrey’s psychological state and motivations that compensate for its implausibility. Is she seeking a confidant whose grief equals hers? A replacement for her husband? To make amends for the unhappiness she caused Steven by her rejection of his friend? And what is Jerry seeking, and what will be the consequences of the emergent pseudo parent-child bond between Jerry and the children?
The film fails to explore these questions in a meaningful way. As if fearful of grappling with the complex emotional ramifications of the situation, the script virtually abandons the grief story for the safe and familiar territory of a drug addiction story. Jerry relapses, Audrey intervenes, there are showy detox scenes for Del Toro and concerned caring scenes for Berry, and the story proceeds to its expected conclusion.
Things We Lost in the Fire is a frustrating film because there is much about it to recommend, yet I cannot recommend it. I was drawn in by the performances and the inherent drama of the situation. Individual scenes have real emotional power. The addiction story, though unoriginal, is executed well. But there are also key scenes that are impossibly contrived, and I wanted the movie to continue and to end as it had begun, as a story about surviving loss.