DreamWorks // 2007 // 118 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Joel Pearce (Retired) // March 24th, 2009
Accept the good.
Despite several great performances that never fail to engage the viewer, in the aftermath of watching the film comes a harsh realization: it's not really a great film, thanks to a lousy script that even the best performances could never overcome.
Audrey Burke (Halle Berry, Gothika) is reeling after the sudden murder of her husband Brian (David Duchovny, The X Files: I Want to Believe). She has been left in a huge house with reminders of him with their two children. Also deeply hurt is Jerry (Benicio Del Toro, Che), Brian's heroin addicted best friend that Audrey has always resented and disliked. On a whim, Audrey invites Jerry to come and live in the garage, hoping that it will help her cope with her loss.
Movie scripts are often the most invisible part of a production. When we see a good movie, we assume that it began as a great script, though we rarely give the script itself much thought. When we see a bad film, we assume that the script was probably a dud, and should have been left on an intellectual garbage pile somewhere. In reality, though, a film's script is only a rough template of the film that is ultimately made. In the case of Things We Lost in the Fire, good direction and great performances almost make up for the weaknesses in the script, but ultimately can't quite turn a bad concept into a great cinematic experience.
Of course, most of the attention paid to Things We Lost in the Fire has been about its two lead performances. This is the best performance from Halle Berry, as she becomes a woman who is irrational with grief, trying to cope the best she can in impossible circumstances. She evokes great pathos and empathy for Audrey, maintaining her performance through a number of challenging scenes. Del Toro is also at the top of his game as Jerry. Most actors get to portray drug addicts at some point in their careers (and many have the experience to lend some authenticity to those roles), but rarely are they able to lend so much credibility to the drug addict experience. Jerry is an addict, but he is also an intelligent and sensitive person. And yet, Del Toro doesn't let Jerry become a drug-addicted Jekyll and Hyde, as so many of these characters do. Without question, the two leads deserve all of the attention they've received for their performances.
Strip away these good performances, though, and we are left with not much to connect with. Audrey is a pretty horrible person, really. Even in the flashbacks from before Brian's murder, she is irrational and insensitive and selfish, depending completely on Brian for a stable emotional center. After his death, she transfers that reliance to Jerry, pushing him to move in with her and the kids. Once there, she says horribly hurtful things to him, and uses him as an emotional punching bag. If this had been a mediocre performance, nearly everyone who saw this film would hate it. By midway through, I found it harder and harder to care about her and her predicament. While I respect the choice to make the characters imperfect and flawed, there is too little redemption to be had here.
Many of the exchanges are also scattered with truly painful dialogue. In the hands of lesser performers, many of these scenes would be almost unwatchable. There are monologues clogged with bland clichés, insignificant truisms delivered between inane pauses, as well as heavy-handed moral statements. The real miracle of Things We Lost in the Fire is how well Berry and Del Toro disguise the true nature of the film that they are in. They are aided by capable cinematography and sensitive music by Danish arthouse director Susanne Bier, but the film ultimately left me with a bad taste in my mouth. Had Things We Lost in the Fire started with a stronger script, it would be a masterpiece. As it stands, it's a deliberate assault on the emotions -- a tearjerker with too little underneath.
I've probably been too harsh on Things We Lost in the Fire. Many people will find it to be a powerful emotional experience, and it does offer a solid look at the grieving process. At the same time, I find it pales in comparison to films like In the Bedroom or Requiem for a Dream, films that deliver powerful emotional experiences dealing with grief and addiction. The difference? Both of those other films stand up to closer scrutiny. They are emotional experiences and great films. When we have access to films like that, we don't really need films like Things We Lost in the Fire.
For the most part, the Blu-Ray transfer looks excellent. The video transfer has been deliberately oversaturated to highlight the sunbathed exteriors. These sequence are stunning in high definition, but often look surrealistic as a result. This also tends to blow out the black level a little, so shadows are occasionally lost. The detail and grain are both excellent, though, and highlight the quality of the cinematography, especially Bier's tendency to use soft focus in extreme close-ups. Halle Berry's smooth beauty and Del Toro's rough facial crags are both brought out with this transfer, and it makes up for the minor flaws. In terms of sound, the Dolby TrueHD mix is fine, but nothing about it stands out from what would be delivered on a DVD track. In terms of extras, we get a handful of deleted scenes, as well as a short featurette about the film. Nothing has been added for this release of the film.
I realize many people have much respect for Things We Lost in the Fire, and they will be quite pleased with the Blu-Ray release. For real fans of the film, it's a worthwhile upgrade from DVD, for the clarity and detail of the transfer. For more jaded viewers, however, I recommend a pass on this one. Great performances aren't enough to make a great film.
Things We Lost in the Fire is guilty, but Berry and Del Toro have redeemed it. Let's call this one time served.
Review content copyright © 2009 Joel Pearce; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 118 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes
* Official Site