When her husband Brian (Duchovny) is shot and killed, Audrey (Berry) asks his best friend Jerry (Del Toro) to move in to the family home. Despite animosity on her part - Jerry is a recovering drug addict - their shared grief heals emotional wounds...
They say there are few good women’s roles in Hollywood today and they - whoever they are - would be right. Female film characters fall into two camps: an attractive afterthought to place beside the leading man in a few scenes, or a centre-stage showcase that’s more Oscar bid than recognisable human being. When an actress finds a role both dramatically challenging and emotionally real, she must sigh with relief. After the X-Men series and the career-damaging triple-decker of Gothika, Catwoman and Perfect Stranger, Halle Berry finally has the opportunity to claw back the credibility she won with Monster’s Ball. Her performance here is poignant and nuanced - sometimes strong, sometimes vulnerable as a mother, woman and widow. But if Berry does grace the Academy’s shortlist come February, so too should co-star Benicio Del Toro, who brings dignity and humour to his role as a recovering heroin addict.
Danish director Susanne Bier, making her English-language debut, is perfect for such material. Bier has a knack for finding genuine human emotion inside grief-stricken storylines that could easily tip over into soapy melodrama. The plots of her last three movies - Open Hearts, Brothers and After The Wedding - push contrivance to the limit, but Bier’s sure touch gives them a stamp of truth. She always shows sensitive understanding of how people really think and feel, and her handling of newcomer Allan Loeb’s screenplay is no different. The Dogme veteran finds telling details in close-ups of faces and hands, but also allows her actors wider space to create fully-rounded, difficult but charismatic characters.
Building from these raw, authentic performances, Things We Lost In The Fire is all the more affecting for avoiding the histrionics inherent in its story and rejecting any notion of sentimental romance between the leads. Here, extreme emotional trauma becomes a catalyst for good, initiating reconciliation and personal healing. It’s also, during Duchovny’s flashback scenes, a truly touching portrait of unconditional friendship, as saintly Brian recognises the qualities buried beneath Jerry’s addiction, and Jerry tries to be a surrogate father so as not to betray his friend’s memory. The fact that the modern world has no place for such a Good Samaritan is the story’s real tragedy.
The script is structurally similar to 21 Grams, but restrained turns and perceptive direction make this honest rather than manipulative.