Judge Brett Cullum lost a lot of things in the fire, but somehow he saved his shrines to Halle Berry and Benicio Del Toro. He's got a thing for Catwoman and The Wolfman.
Our review of Things We Lost In The Fire (Blu-Ray), published March 24th, 2009, is also available.
Dory Burke: Are you going to die like my dad?
Things We Lost in the Fire is a film concerned with loss and grief, and the human nature to struggle with the two emotions while feeling lost in them. It also deals with drug addiction, and how people try to help addicts even when they are not helping themselves. And finally, it is about a Danish director going Hollywood with a pair of actors who want to prove they are still Oscar material. The film is well acted, beautifully photographed, thoughtfully written, and glacially paced. It's a handsomely well-crafted exercise in celluloid meditation that takes on characters in a heavy place. Things We Lost in the Fire is a satisfying melodrama, but it feels just a touch more calculated than it should. The real standout is a stunning performance by Benicio Del Toro, and he becomes the main reason to check out this film.
Facts of the Case
We see a wake for a wealthy family man, and one of the guests is a scruffy chain smoker who doesn't quite belong (Academy Award Winner Benicio Del Toro, Traffic). He is only there because the wife (Academy Award Winner Halle Berry, Monster's Ball) knows the man is a childhood friend of the deceased, and it would be his wish to have him at the funeral. The woman is haunted by her loss, and she reaches out to help the man who is a struggling heroin addict living in squalor. Surprising even herself, she invites him to come live with her to help him recover from an addiction while giving her someone to grieve with. The two form an uneasy bond, and her children come around to the idea of having another man around. But can either of them chase their demons away?
Susanne Bier is a celebrated director from Denmark who made quietly powerful films such as After the Wedding, Open Hearts, and Once in a Lifetime. She uses a handheld camera in her work to capture emotional truth, and to study the human face that her idol, Ingmar Bergman, seemed to be chasing endlessly. Her style consists of using normal, everyday people to look at the extraordinary that comes from the common. Strangely enough, Hollywood has courted the director for some time, and Things We Lost in the Fire marks her first big Tinsletown project. I have to admit it feels strange to see luminous celebrated faces such as Halle Berry and Benicio Del Toro showing up in one of her personal and small films, and that's part of the problem with this project. You can feel the struggle of a director who usually has hardly any resources suddenly being saddled with a slick mandate to make a serious award-contender film with big budget names. The Danish director is as lost as her lead character in many ways.
Luckily for everyone involved, the cast consists of a solid group of capable thespians in addition to the celebrity name-recognition factor. Halle Berry brings her Monster's Ball performance back, hoping like hell everyone forgets about Catwoman. She plays her character, Audrey, as a woman constipated with the emotions stemming from her loss. She has to be strong for her children, so she doesn't allow herself any release until a climactic point in the film. Perhaps the most moving performance comes from Del Toro, who has the right face to play a conflicted junkie who is smarter than his habit. He hits all the right notes playing someone who only finds peace in the escape of a drug haze, and he comes off as fiercely believable. David Duchovny (The X Files) plays the deceased husband seen only in flashbacks, and he is a warm and gentle presence in everyone's memory. There are two young actors who play the children and do a good job of capturing being wounded by death at an impressionable age.
The DVD presentation is fine. We get a solid transfer that showcases the digital film very well without any compression artifacts or color bleeding. Purposefully, the film is somewhat washed out, so it's hard to tell about color saturation or correct flesh tones since filters are used heavily in the initial photography. Black levels are strong, and the depressing, blanched-out palette of the movie is preserved. There is a nice front-heavy surround sound treatment available in three languages. Included in the special features are seven extraneous deleted scenes and a well-rounded 20-minute "behind the scenes" featurette that includes onset interviews with the director and cast. They all seem very committed to the project since the script was considered too small and personal to get such royal Hollywood treatment, and we hear from executive producer Sam Mendes (director American Beauty) on why he wanted to develop the project. All in all, we get a good sense of the context of how this movie came to be made and why each party entered the film.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The style of Susanne Bier works against her throughout Things We Lost in the Fire, and it's strange since these devices have worked for the director strongly in the past. The handheld camera moves seem calculated since the film otherwise looks very polished, and there is an almost distracting number of shots of simply a character's eyes in extreme close-up. We get Halle Berry's doe eyes welling up with tears, Del Toro's squinty bloodshot peepers while on drugs, and the kids opening up their brown soul windows as wide as they can in screen-filling detail. The use of flashbacks early in the story also distracted me. Bier uses the technique to give us background and context, but the memories come disjointed and without warning in the first few reels. By the time the viewer gets comfortable with these scenes, they disappear altogether, and the final half of the film doesn't use them at all as the narrative only moves forward. The way she is telling her story shifts, and that makes the feature off-kilter. Perhaps that is a way to duplicate the feeling after death, to have the past intrude unexpectedly then disappear altogether, but it seems conveniently planned rather than organic.
I have to say Things We Lost in the Fire is a good melodrama that only falters on a beat or two when things feel a little forced. The relationship of the widow and her husband's childhood friend is nicely developed, though we never get to know them as well as we'd like to. Benicio Del Toro really shines through, and if you are a fan of his, the film contains one of his stronger performances to date. The cinematography, acting, writing, and technical elements are all capable enough to carry the heavy narrative. Everyone turns in strong character work, but the pace is painfully slow. The style of the director seems at odds with making a studio-funded picture, but overall the film works, though not as well as previous projects. What makes Susanne Bier such an innovator in her indie films is missing here because she is working with luminaries of the business. Everything seems to be too polished to get to the gut feelings you know they are gunning for, and that's where you walk away feeling the whole experience wasn't as powerful as it could be. If you're looking for a quiet, slow-paced movie dealing with grief and addiction, this one is a logical choice. The DVD is certainly worth a look since it delivers just enough extras to answer any questions about why the film was made.
Guilty of being a dramatically glossy film from a rough and tumble Dane,
Things We Lost in the Fire makes for a nice meditation on loss and
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• Behind the Scenes Featurette
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