Things We Lost in the Fire: Danish director Susanne Bier’s American Debut, Starring Halle Berry and Benicio del Toro

The Danish director Susanne Bier makes a disappointing American feature debut in Things We Lost in the Fire, a middlebrow, therapeutic anatomy of loss, grief, denial, and friendship.

There a considerable gap between Biers artsy treatment and stylistic devices and the essentially formulaic story about the evolving friendship between a widow who cant come to terms with the sudden death of her good, loving husband, and a down-and-out junkie, who was her hubbys best friend.

Starring Halle Berry and Benicio del Toro, the picture boasts plenty of A-talent in front of and behind the camera, but this aspect only magnifies the disparity between intent and execution, between star caliber and high-level acting and roles and scripts that have been done and seen before.

Though the husband doesnt die in a political context, thematically, the film is timely, centering on loss, despair, and solitude, recurrent motifs of many American movies in the post 9/11 era. However, overall, “Things We Lost in the Fire” feels like an updated version of a classic Hollywood melodrama, sort of a tragic humanistic yarn the new millennium.

Perhaps the best news about this film project is that, according to star Halle Berry, the female role was not written for a woman of color, nor was the marriage depicted on page interracial. Making color-blind movies indicates a sign of progress–about time, you might say. But what is the movie about

Told with flashbacks, the story concerns a happily married couple, Audrey (Berry) and Brian (David Duchovny) Burke and their ideal and idyllic suburban life with two young children, a dog, and so on. (Sam Mendes, of “American Beauty” fame, is producer, which may explain fondly depicted suburban setting)

The plot gears into action, when, out of the blue, Audrey is told by the local police that her loyal hubby had been killed in a random act of violence; the scene of the crime is recreated in detail later on, and it’s devastating because Brian acted in good faith and was “unnecessarily” killed. We are led to believe that the 11-year-marriage has provided joy and comfort for Audrey, but has also made her too dependent on her husband, taking for granted, as most couples do, his anchoring love and positive grounding effect.

All alone and adrift, Audrey turns to Jerry Sunborne (De Toro), a down-and-out drug-addict, whos been Brians closest friend. Jerry is at first reluctant, but with the right persuasion, he moves into Audreys house, settling into a room adjacent to the garage. Though a misfit and an outsider, soon Jerry begins to fill the emotional void in Audreys existence and to be perceived as surrogate father by her kids, fulfilling different needs for both boy and girl.
(It’s the second picture this season, after the lovely “Lars and the Real Girl,” in which a misfit residing in a garage has healing powers on all those around him).

Just as the Burkes begin to get used to their new, more tolerable life, the script makes sure that Jerry will be confronted and defeated by his own demons. The daily battle to stay off drugs doesnt always work, and predictably Jerry begins to sink lower and lower, which means that he disappoints both Audrey and her children.

It takes some effort to get him into rehab, and in fact, the weakest, most familiar scenes in the film depict his escalating addiction, living as homeless in squalor, and later withdrawal syndromes, and rehab sessions at Narcotics Anonymous, all steps documented by Hollywood movies over the past six decades, from Billy Wilders groundbreaking The Lost Weekend, through Days of Wine and Roses, to “When a Man Loves a Woman” (with Meg Ryan as an alcoholic wife-mother).

Picture’s second half is more interesting due to the addition of other characters that are influenced by Brian’s death, both directly and indirectly. Prime among them are Audrey’s younger brother Neal (Omar Benson Miller), who’s called upon to give solace, and particularly Howard Glassman (John Carroll Lynch), a neighbor who is Brian’s daily running companion, who also needs to reassess his life.

Most interesting of the supporting figures is Kelly (the wonderful Alison Lohman), the young, bright woman who befriends Jerry at a Narcotics Anonymous meeting, and shows greater sympathy than anyone else due to the fact that she’s farther along then him in her journey as a rehabilitated substance abuser.

Like the current legal thriller, Terry George’s Reservation Road, also a weak picture about reaction to sudden loss, albeit with elements of vendetta and revenge, Things We Lost in the Fire is about dealing with grief and navigating denial on both personal and group levels. By stressing the importance of friendships and bonds (both familial and social), the movie propagates its healing and soothing messages. In the end, despite the predominantly gloomy ambience, the yarn manages to terminates on a rather hopeful note, by suggesting how values of inner resilience and will power, while fragile, unstable, and constantly tested, need to be cultivated and rediscovered, and the only way to do is through social interactions, working closely together with others–illustrating the idea of “No Man is an Island.”

Berry and De Toro are gifted actors who have played well vulnerable, down-on-their luck human beings before: Berry in her Oscar-winning role Monsters Ball, and Del Toro in 21 Grams. As an emotionally compelling drama about two individuals brought together by fate and accident, the whole picture recalls Alejandro Gonzales Innaritus 21 Grams, in which Naomi Watts husband and child die in a car accident for which Del Toro is responsible.

Both thespians render strong yet understated performances that elevate the material. This is particularly the case of Del Toro, who goes out of his waymostly effectivelynot to repeat verbal and visual clichs in his portrait of a recovering drug addict.

At 41, Berry is at her most beautiful, and her performance here is more natural and smooth, or less mannered, as could have been the case. Yet, ultimately, the text keeps dragging the actors down to its own borderline banal level.

What’s more disappointing is the pretentious visual style that Bier is using, one that has not marked any of her emotionally intense, character-driven Danish films, such as Open Hearts (2002), the critically acclaimed Brothers (2004), which was nominated for 11 European Film Academy Awards, and the 2006 Oscar-nominated After the Wedding. (Reportedly, both pictures are now being remade into English).

Under Bier’s guidance, the talented cinematographer Tom Stern goes for mega close-ups of the stars, often showing one eye (or part of an eye) as both an aesthetic device and metaphor for viewing–partial and distorted, of course. This visual element is repeated so many times that it becomes tiresome, calling attention not just to itself but to the helmers portentous intent to make a stylized European art film out of what is essentially a solemn, explicit melodrama thats just a notch or two above earnest TV fare.

Cast:

Audrey Burke: Halle Berry
Jerry Sunborne: Benicio Del Toro
Brian: David Duchovny
Harper: Alexis Llewellyn
Dory: Micah Berry
Howard: John Carroll Lynch
Kelly: Alison Lohman
Neal: Omar Benson Miller

Credits

Running time: 116 Minutes
MPAA rating: R

Paramount release of a DreamWorks presentation of a Neal Street production
Director: Susanne Bier
Screenwriter: Allan Loeb
Producers: Sam Mendes, Sam Mercer
Executive producers: Pippa Harris, Allan Loeb
Director of photography: Tom Stern
Production designer: Richard Sherman
Music: Johan Soderqvist
Costume designer: Karen Matthews
Editors: Pernille Bech Christensen, Bruce Cannon