In “Things We Lost in the Fire,” drug addict Jerry Sunborne (played by Benicio Del Toro) tells his best friend to “accept the good.” The film may have its weak moments, but it portrays enough honest emotion to at least overlook the bad.
Danish director Susanne Bier’s debut American movie initially concentrates on the emotional plight of Audrey, played by a gripping Halle Berry. The first scene takes us to a funeral where we find Audrey mourning the death of her husband Steven (David Duchovny). At the funeral is Steven’s best childhood friend and on-and-off-again heroin addict, Jerry, whom Audrey invites at the last second. Upon seeing the recently clean Jerry, Audrey admits how silly it is that she used to detest her husband’s yearly visits with him.
Despite such negative feelings in the past, the unlikely pair share an instant connection through Steven’s death. Steven refused to give up on Jerry, and Audrey soon finds herself doing the same by offering Jerry a place in her home and, as a result, her family. Inevitably, by refusing to give up on one another, the healing begins.
Benicio Del Toro’s face alone speaks volumes in every shot he’s in. The camera pays particularly close attention to his eyes, which hint not only at his inner demons but also at his sense of hope when in the presence of Audrey and her two children. Del Toro’s nuanced performance forces us to sympathize with an addict who is the seeming antithesis of his deceased best friend.
Halle Berry gives her best performance since “Monster’s Ball,” in which she played another emotionally scarred woman mourning the death of a family member who died in a car accident. Though Del Toro is the more affecting actor, Berry holds her own in such a way that we gain a true sense of her suffering.
At its most successful, the film portrays grief and drug abuse in scenes of minute realizations that lead to self-discovery. One such moment occurs over dinner when Kelly (Alison Lohman), a friend of Jerry’s from Alcoholics Anonymous, prods Audrey to answer simple questions about Steven. Audrey is finally forced to face the harsh reality of her husband’s death — she cannot continue pretending he never existed. Many of the scenes between Audrey and Jerry are also refreshingly honest and emotionally jarring. In these non-sensationalized moments, “Things We Lost in the Fire” feels fresh and free from the boundaries to which commercial films typically stick.
But that originality isn’t maintained. Interwoven flashbacks fail because their only purpose is to provide an overly romanticized characterization of Steven as perfect. The character of the altruistic husband is too conventional, and such scenes feel contrived as Bierin obviously seeks to tug at our heartstrings. All this sentimentality is out of place in a film about themes as heavy as drugs and death. Also, Bierin condescends by apparently suggesting that the audience would not empathize with Audrey’s situation if her husband had any flaws.
Audrey’s character also gives into our expectations when she admits to Jerry her desire to get high. One gets the sense that Audrey lacks true conviction about her words, and the issue is never addressed again. While there’s no doubt she would want to escape from her suffering, it’s obvious she understands Jerry isn’t any better off than she is.
While “Things We Lost in the Fire” isn’t the most brutally honest film about drugs, it’s often surprisingly gritty and unafraid to be downright depressing. Though Jerry claims that we should “accept the good,” perhaps it would be better to say we should accept the bad in order to appreciate the good this film has to offer.