The most remarkable thing about Things We Lost in the Fire—apart from Benicio Del Toro’s performance—is the fact that Susanne Bier came all the way from Denmark to make this movie. I guess there must be no Danish equivalent to the Lifetime TV channel, because when all is said and done Bier’s first English-language film isn’t a lot more than a slightly grittier variant of the sort of thing one encounters on that channel. And apart from the feeling of something authentic whenever Del Toro is on the screen, the grit seems just a soupçon on the faux side.
I’d liked Bier’s last film, After the Wedding (2006), but I noted at the time that she had an “irritating penchant for shoving her handheld camera in her cast’s faces,” something that harks back to her association with the Dogme school of filmmaking. Proving, I suppose, that you can’t teach an old Dogme new tricks, she’s brought this weapon of distraction with her to Hollywood. Where she treated viewers to a big screen close-up of Rolf Lassgard’s nose in After the Wedding, she now offers gigantic views of the eyes (one eye at a time, mind you) of Benicio Del Toro and Halle Berry. My best guess is that this is supposed to convey emotional intensity. What it mostly did was drag me out of the story and convince me that I don’t have a future in optometry.
In addition to this, she also brought along composer Johan Söderqvist. I don’t remember Mr. Söderqvist’s score for After the Wedding, but the one he’s laid on top of Things We Lost in the Fire is of the random-guitar-notes-and-tinkly-piano school. It’s obtrusive in its very effort to be unobtrusive. Plucking a guitar may not overwhelm the drama, but when it makes you want to yell, “Hey, if you get near a tune play it,” at the screen, it’s yanked you out of the drama worse than John Williams in his most bombastic ersatz Wagner mode. And really, if you’re going to make melodramatic soap you’re not going to bamboozle anybody into thinking it’s more than that by coating the damned thing in fake documentary camerawork and a minimalist score. Seriously, just bring on the Ross Hunter gloss, give it the full thundering Franz Waxman musical track, and one day you’ll be recognized as a subversive genius à la Douglas Sirk. Alas, Bier is too concerned with giving us the sow’s ear and not the silk purse.
The drama all centers on Audrey Burke (Berry), the grieving widow of Steven Burke (David Duchovny, who gets his screen time in flashbacks), who somewhat improbably invites Steven’s friend, Jerry Sunborne (Del Toro), to live in her upscale converted garage. She knows that Jerry is a lawyer who ruined his career through heroin addiction, and she doesn’t even like the man. Worse, she has reason to blame him for Steven’s death, since the shooting that took his life occurred when he tried to stop a wife-beating he encountered after visiting Jerry. But she’s determined to do what she thinks Steven would have wanted. What starts as an uneasy arrangement doesn’t lead to romance (though it flirts with it in one really wrongheaded scene), but only furthers problems since Audrey resents Jerry teaching her kids the things Steven ought to have been there to teach them. As a result, she throws him out, and as a result of that, he heads straight for the needle, whereupon she has an attack of conscience and … you get the idea.
In all fairness, the film works at least part of the time. Berry—after a string of unfortunate career moves—occasionally reminds us why she won that Oscar, and that’s no mean feat considering the way her role was written. Duchovny is also good in his limited screen time, while Alison Lohman (Flicka) justifies the promise of her earlier roles as a member of Jerry’s Narcotics Anonymous group. But in the end, the thing that gives Things We Lost in the Fire its biggest plus is Benicio Del Toro. Even when the film is falling to pieces around him, Del Toro convinces us of the reality and the intelligence of his character. He never overplays what could have been a too showy role, but neither does he underplay it. He hits just the right note in every scene. The expressiveness of his eyes and his facial movements—at least when Bier doesn’t fragment his face in wayward close-ups—make him believable and human no matter how absurd the melodrama gets, no matter how trite and tidy the storyline becomes. For his performance alone, Things We Lost in the Fire edges toward the plus column, and it is what justifies seeing the film. Rated R for drug content and language.