Chase That Feeling
I want to escape. I want to know what it feels like to escape.
—Audrey (Halle Berry)
The first shots of Things We Lost in the Fire are flat-out gorgeous. A little boy, soon revealed to be six-year-old Dory (Micah Berry), walks along the side of a pool, its surface fluctuating, chlorinated, shimmery green-blue light. Dory dips in his hand, as his father, Brian (David Duchovny), explains the effect. “It’s fluorescent,” he says, “lit from within.” Adorable Dory turns up his face: “Am I fluorescent?” His dad smiles warmly: “Yeah, Dory, you are.”
Awww. It’s a perfect, lovely movie moment; you might even call it even “fluorescent.” The cut to Dory’s sister, 10-year-old Harper (Alexis Llewellyn), wrapped in her mother’s arms, as both cry and rock, suggests that the previous and too-perfect scene is somehow out of time. Things We Lost in the Fire goes on to detail how one scene informs, breaks from, and is affected by the other. As its title suggests, the film is about loss, and of course “things” will prove unutterably less significant than moments and, as it turns out, Brian. Cutting back and forth in time, the film lays out the beauty of his marriage to Audrey (Halle Berry), their lovely home in Seattle, and their idealized relationships with their wondrous children. They have lots to lose, and when Brian is shot dead, the movie’s primary trauma and site of loss are clear.
The fact that Brian is killed while trying to save a stranger involved in a fight with her horrible husband is telling. Brian is all about helping other people, which makes him both unlike Audrey, who is nervously protective of what’s hers (kids especially). She’s also disapproving of Brian’s lifelong and unending friendship with Jerry (Benicio Del Toro), a pleasant-seeming, brittle fellow who’s also a hardcore junkie, intermittently recovering. As Audrey puts together the list of invitations for the funeral, she only remembers Jerry at the literally last minute, sending her brother Neal (Omar Benson Miller) to fetch him out of his squalid, needle-strewn apartment. (“You better not be fucking with me, man,” mutters Jerry as Neal stands awkwardly in the hallway.)
Out of respect for Brian, whom he loved dearly, even if he wondered at his determined loyalty, Jerry cleans up. He puts on a suit, attends the wake, engages the children in conversation, and soon finds himself invited to live in Audrey’s garage. She’s feeling sad about Brian, dreadfully lonely, and vaguely generous, as if to emulate and so keep hold of her dead husband. “I don’t need your charity,” he protests. “It’s me that needs the help,” she says, a self-assessment that she can’t begin to comprehend.
The film intersperses the evolving liaison between Jerry and Audrey with their memories of Brian, suggesting he’s their connective tissue even if he is lost. At the same time, Jerry finds new friendships, with Brian’s neighbor and early morning running partner Howard (John Carroll Lynch), and with a member of his addicts’ group, Kelly (Alison Lohman). These relationships show Jerry in a range of emotional situations, emphasizing his openness and warmth, his apparently innate kindness, which stands in some contrast to the more isolated, less visible Audrey. While Jerry’s compassion seems “natural” and Audrey’s hard-won and slow-in-coming, they are plainly headed toward the same place, a reconciliation that allows each to respect Brian in a different way.
Their journeys are made “internal” by incessant close-ups—eyes, noses, fingers, and in Audrey’s case, the earlobe she needs caressed so she can go to sleep. These images recall previous films by Dogme-inspired director Susanne Bier—including Efter bröllopet (After the Wedding) and Elsker dig for evigt (Open Hearts)—where internal pandemonium is suggested by shots seemingly too close to fathom. Such images are most effective when the narrative they service is complex, alluring, even harrowing. Here, however, Jerry and Audrey are locked into reductive storylines, so their shadowed eyes and perspiring brows are only telling you what you already know.
Even as the film makes their performances of grief seem trite—she yells at her kids, he relapses and then undergoes a very standard DTs sequence—a more disturbing stereotype has to with Audrey’s efforts to share her loss with Jerry. For all her concerns with schedules and tendency toward caution when Brian was alive, she was and remains the sort of woman Berry tends to play—sensual and assured, but also fragile, yearning, waiting to be “unlocked.” It’s a troubling repetition, associated with Berry’s controversial and prize-winning role in Monster’s Ball. Partly because you’ve seen her before, Audrey can’t arrive at a new place. Instead, she recovers herself and lets loose of her “things” in disappointingly conventional ways.