Things We Lost in the Fire is a mournful meditation on love, loss, moving on and finding solace in unexpected people and places. It doesn't have all the answers, and it isn't easy to watch, but Halle Berry and Benicio Del Toro give great performances in an honest, moving film that's one of the year's best dramas.
It's an odd, uncomfortable thing to see people brought together by death, but that's what happens after Audrey Burke's (Berry) husband Steven (David Duchovny) is murdered while bravely trying to stop a random domestic violence dispute. In flashbacks, we learn that Audrey never liked Steven's best friend Jerry Sunborne (Del Toro), a recovering heroin addict on whom everyone but Steven had given up. With only their grief uniting them, Audrey invites Jerry to move into her renovated garage and help out around the house with her two kids, 6-year-old Dory (Micah Berry, no relation) and his 10-year-old sister Harper (Alexis Llewellyn).
The script by Allan Loeb is shocking at times, heartfelt at others and always sincere. Director Susanne Bier isn't afraid to allow Audrey to say the awful things she thinks in the aftermath of Steven's death: She looks Jerry in the eye and says it should've been he who died, and she scorns Jerry for teaching Dory to put his head under water, something Steven couldn't get Dory to do.
These scenes are juxtaposed with Audrey needing Jerry's help around the house and, most touchingly, her needing him to cuddle with her at night so she can sleep. In a lesser movie two people holding one another in bed would lead to sex, but it's always clear here that Audrey just needs somebody—anybody—nearby to help her fill the void left by her husband, and Jerry is her best bet. Their relationship is purely platonic, and any indication of something more is deflected by the presence of Kelly (Alison Lohman), whom Jerry meets at Narcotics Anonymous.
Don't get the impression that Audrey is angry and distraught throughout the movie. To the contrary, she does everything she can to hold her family together and remain positive, and Berry's sympathetic presence makes Audrey an endearing woman for whom we want nothing but the best. Berry looks beautiful, yes, but never strikes viewers as sexy; she's completely convincing as a loving mom trying to be strong for her family.
Del Toro is excellent as well, taking his character beyond the somber self-pity of a man who just lost his only friend. Jerry's descriptions of heroin highs and the pain of addiction are heart-wrenching and complex; he has the candor of someone willing to deal with his problem and move on, but his tone and expression are almost one of regret and longing for the sensation the drug provides.
Things We Lost in the Fire is a sad story that doesn't go out of its way for an uplifting ending and, as such, remains true to the melancholic reality of the characters' lives. When it's over, let the lump in your throat be a reminder to be thankful for what you have.
Directed by Susanne Bier
Starring Halle Berry, David Duchovny, Benicio Del Toro
Opens Friday, Oct. 20 at Edwards 21