Warning: spoilers ahead.
The small-scale domestic drama of Things We Lost in the Fire begins at a funeral, where we see Audrey, a mother of two young children, (Halle Berry) trying to hold herself together. She has unexpectedly lost her husband Brian (David Duchovny), and the film charts what happens to their family in the aftermath of his sudden, violent death.
When it was released, Things We Lost in the Fire received decidedly mixed reviews, and didn’t exactly set the box office ablaze with ticket sales. Despite a massive publicity campaign (which included an entire hour on Oprah), the film was seen as a massive disappointment and quickly vanished.
Instead of being poised to conquer the Oscars, perhaps Things We Lost in the Fire can find an audience that can better appreciate its intimacy on the small screen. The film’s intriguing treatment of universal subject matter, such as how one navigates the grief process and the hidden trauma that follows inexplicable loss, is sensitive and thought-provoking as it looks at the way humans deal with death. Some people choose to be sedated, others prefer denial, but what Audrey does is try and pick up where her husband left off.
Brian’s best friend Jerry (the magnificent Benecio Del Toro) has been the bane of Audrey’s existence for many years. He is a heroin-addled bum whose only connection to reality is through Brian. Every time the dedicated Brian leaves their toney suburban neighborhood to visit Jerry in the ghetto, Audrey purports to be afraid for his life. Mainly, she is jealous of the time he spends with this loser of a friend. It is ironic, then, that Brian is killed in a tragic (albeit heroic) stand-off only blocks from where he actually lives, rather than during one of the trips to visit Jerry in the flophouse he resides in.
When Jerry shows up mysteriously at the funeral, chatting up the dead man’s kids, Audrey tentatively lets down her guard with the man for the first time in years, as though she connects with the stranger more than anyone else there. “I hated you for so many years and now it all seems so silly”, she says, exasperated. Through flashbacks, we see how much Jerry truly depended on Brian.
In this opening sequence, Berry and Del Toro do a spectacular job of establishing the characters and their history, while leaving viewers excited enough to stick around and see where the story will take them. The pair of actors stir up a nice mixture of unpredictability and intimacy that is missing from other similar contemporary dramas (House of Sand and Fog, Olivier Assayas’ Clean, and Del Toro’s own 21 Grams immediately spring to mind when searching for a comparison). The scene is brief and meticulous and sets the terse emotional tone for the rest of the film.
In this well-acted story, which does a bang-up job of capturing the awkwardness and social obligation that follows death, director Susanne Bier (known for her dramatic work in her native Denmark, particularly for last year’s After the Wedding, for which she was nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film) chooses to keep things mainly very still. Unnervingly so, in spots. The pace is unlike other American films of this same genre, and both actors are given equal opportunity to use this showcase to its fullest potential.
It’s a nice change of pace to see a multi-racial cast with two non-white actors in the lead roles in a big Hollywood film. Its also great, in a year that is so informed by ladies in roles behind the camera (Julie Taymor, Tamara Jenkins, Nancy Oliver, Sarah Polley Diablo Cody, etc.) to add another woman’s name to the list of women who are disproving the old myth that filmmaking is strictly a boys club.
It’s very important to recognize the commitment to having diversity in not only the players, but also the characters – which range from lowlifes to ritzy suburbanites. Audrey is a middle class, bi-racial woman in an interracial marriage with two beautiful children, and I can’t think of the last time this kind of character was explored. Kudos must be given to Berry for doing something fresh and experimental and not participating in another lame star vehicle. She nails the part of Audrey out of the park.
I have to admit to not being a fan of this actress whatsoever. She has squandered opportunity after opportunity after becoming the first African American actress to win the Oscar for Best Actress (for 2001’s Monster’s Ball) by choosing to make ridiculous garbage like Gothika and Perfect Stranger. Don’t even get me started on the sheer lunacy of Catwoman, a part that won Berry the Razzie award for Worst Actress, which she actually went to accept, Oscar in tow.
While her performance in Monster’s Ball was solid enough (but not the best of the nominees that year), I have always wondered what people see in Berry other than her obvious physical attributes. Generally possessed of a singularly wooden style of delivery and a vacant, dead-eyed stare, Berry isn’t a classically-trained actress, nor is she consistently charismatic. This is a woman who boasted about being paid an extra cash bonus for gratuitously showing her breasts in an action film (Swordfish) the same year she won the Oscar. She seems to be best-appreciated for her sex appeal.
One role that actually capitalized on this dimension of the actress was Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, a Showtime biography film about the life of the troubled, pioneering black actress who was the first to be nominated for the Best Actress Academy Award (and whom Berry rightfully thanked in her own Oscar acceptance speech). Berry had the role that every performer of color in Hollywood wanted (Whitney Houston, Janet Jackson, and Jasmine Guy were all set to play her at various stages of production). She ran with it, won the Emmy, and neatly established herself as Hollywood’s premiere black actress, and has the paychecks to prove it.
With Thing We Lost in the Fire, Berry finally shows why she earns those mega-paydays. In Monster’s Ball, Berry played the grief-stricken mother in a much more theatrical, almost over-the-top manor, but here she wisely dials it down to quiet, simmering fury. It is, simply, her finest performance to date, hinting at an artistic maturity that hopefully will be more fully explored in the years to come.
The main reason to see the film is for the two lead actors’ galvanizing performances, which take them both to places they hadn’t before been in their careers, especially as Audrey begins to reach out to Jerry (though the disc’s scant extras do little to bolster the characters). Perhaps as a continuation of her husband’s philanthropy and goodness, or perhaps as a way to remain connected to her dead husband, she devises a scheme to move Jerry from the halfway house into an unfinished room above her garage.
As Jerry starts to settle into his new role, replacing Brian at the dinner table, and, shockingly, laying next to her at night so she can sleep, it feels as though all of the work Bier does in the first half of the film to establish an unsentimental tone and steely directness is about to descend into a storm of maudlin melodramatics. The bittersweet tone of the first part of the film is very nearly undone with the hints of a love story between Audrey and Jerry. As he becomes increasingly (and almost inappropriately) comfortable as the head of his dead friend’s household, Del Toro and Berry cleverly ground the story back into reality with masterful, realistic grace.
Things We Lost in the Fire is ultimately about loss and detachment, but it’s also about recovery, even in the most unsavory and rotten circumstances. It’s about relying on whoever will help you through the mess when you’re really down and out and need it, and the bonds of real friendship that stick even when the limits are sorely tested. Both characters cope with selfishness and selflessness while coping with Brian’s death, and show the viewer the kind of wonderful denouement that is possible when people connect, take control over their lives, and bring about seemingly impossible change.
Despite some bumps, the film deserves another look. It’s an obvious labor of love for everyone involved, as evidenced in the players’ joy in reveling in their characters’ dynamic arcs. Hopefully, Berry stays the course and follows up this turn with something equally powerful, and hopefully Del Toro gets more chances to do leading man parts like this one. He is one of the finest working actors we have, and his work in this film proves he can take a rather thankless role in a film with a slight premise and turn it into an epic character study. Neither Del Toro nor Berry chooses to go the obvious route here, and it is appreciated and refreshing.