A live-wire performance by Benicio Del Toro sparks an otherwise morose study of loss, addiction and catharsis in “Things We Lost in the Fire.” First American feature from Danish helmer Susanne Bier intermittently finds ways to provide a fresh approach to conventional themes, but in the long run can’t escape the limited dramatic options inherent in its story of the growing bond between a bereaved widow and the junkie who was her late husband’s best friend. Modest B.O. looms.
There’s nothing to suggest that Bier, known internationally for such films as “Open Hearts,” “Brothers” and “After the Wedding,” had to compromise her style in order to work in Hollywood; to the contrary, she was fortunate to find some strong collaborators, particularly Del Toro and producer/project godfather Sam Mendes, on both sides of the camera.
How effective that style is remains another matter, however. From the beginning, her Dogma-derived handheld camera is constantly darting hither and yon, probing to find the right angle and only sporadically succeeding. From an aesthetic standpoint, the visual results, in terms of composition, desaturated color schemes and mood, are not especially entrancing.
At the wake for the husband of Audrey Burke (Halle Berry), one man doesn’t quite fit in with the upscale crowd at her elegant Seattle-area home. He’s the oddly scruffy Jerry Sunborne (Del Toro), who reveals he grew up with the deceased, Brian Burke (David Duchovny).
As flashbacks soon disclose, Brian visited Jerry at the latter’s flophouse lodgings on his birthday before impulsively intervening in a domestic dispute and being senselessly shot to death.
Brian’s murder doesn’t just devastate Audrey but effectively paralyzes her; entirely unprepared for being on her own and raising her 10-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son, she simply doesn’t know what to do, although she gets a bit of help from her brother Neal (Omar Benson Miller). In her emotionally frozen condition, she tracks down Jerry at a methadone clinic and invites him to stay at her home, where he can do a little work on the side.
Trying to stay clean, Jerry attends group therapy meetings, where he attracts the interest of another recovering addict, Kelly (Alison Lohman). But, sure enough, he relapses, then endures a grueling withdrawal as Jerry and Audrey fall into a relationship of mutual dependency, relying on one another to get through the most difficult periods of their respective lives.
Emotional core of Allan Loeb’s original screenplay is thoroughly legitimate and, fortunately, does not go the silly route of proposing a potential romance for the two lost souls who bond over their mutual closeness with the same man. Dialogue is strictly functional, however, and the characters remain essentially one-dimensional; very little is ever revealed about protags’ pasts, interests or what brought them to this point. Pic’s concern is all in the moment.
To this end, the one player who genuinely seems to live in the moment and can bring it alive is Del Toro. Drug addict characters famously provide abundant possibilities for the sort of intense emoting actors love, and while Del Toro doesn’t avoid this entirely, he captivates by often going the other way, expressing a certain lightness and humor that cuts against expectations. You never doubt Jerry is hooked, but Del Toro’s charm and behavioral variety provide the man with more dimension than is provided on the page.
Another performance that elicits more than meets the eye comes from Lohman, who has very little to work with but strongly imprints her character’s resolve and positive outlook.
Perhaps partly because Audrey is so dumbstruck by the hand fate has dealt her, Berry can’t develop the character beyond the obvious signposts. Plausibly enough, she seems ghostly and vacant much of the time, and not very interesting in the bargain. Even more simplistic is Duchovny’s Brian, who is positioned as just short of saintly as a husband, friend and ill-advised do-gooder.
In line with Bier’s preference for handheld, often multiple camera coverage and lots of jump cutting, tech quality is on the raw side by Hollywood standards.