The machinations of grief and its inescapable processes are powerful things to behold, usually. Loss is a permanent shadow on the human condition, a reminder of the darker and older forces our lives are privy to regardless of our own ideas of fairness and justice. Dramatic films can often replicate the more expressive properties of mourning - the crippling bouts of sorrow, the rage and frustration, all conveniently digestible emotions for which the Academy is happy to laud. But there are other sides of grief - quieter, almost indiscernible sadnesses that dog the bereaved, too. These accidental moments of grace or bitter idiosyncrasies are much harder for the camera to capture, or any but the most adept writers to pen, but they’re essential for an honest, compelling vision. And it’s the softer side of sadness that Things We Lost in the Fire can only approximate: it’s thick with “easy” grief of the simple variety, and it’s armed with actors well-equipped to dole it out, but ultimately it rings too hollow to really be a profound portrait of loss.
This portrait is of Audrey Burke (Halle Berry), whose husband Steven (David Duchovny) is killed when he tries to prevent an unhinged man from beating his wife. In addition to this heroic death, flashbacks of Steven’s character show him as an impeccable father, a loving husband, and a loyal and supportive companion to an out-of-luck old friend, Jerry (Benicio Del Toro), a recovering drug-addict whom Audrey believes to be a lost cause. Duchovny is so damned beneficent it’s almost surprising that a halo doesn’t come sprouting out of his head; this characterization gives the loss a sense of poignancy, but is also symptomatic of the vastly simplified emotional logic we’ll see throughout Fire. Audrey ends up taking Jerry in, needing another presence in the house to help fill the void; the pair both end up playing out roles as Steven’s facsimile - Audrey resumes her husband’s “project” in helping Jerry piece his life back together, while Jerry provides his presence as a good-natured aid and surrogate father-figure.
Things We Lost in the Fire doesn’t quite approach questions of class directly, but they figure into the film heavily, perhaps in unintended ways. Steven’s career as a proficient landscape developer gives the family fiscal stability, abundance even, in their upper-middle-class house and neighborhood. It’s never really clear whether Audrey has a job or not; in any case, it’s obvious she doesn’t have to work if she doesn’t want to as she’ll never want for money again. This turns out to be a double-edged sword: financial security is certainly a blessing — after all, how much worse would it be if Audrey had to get up in the midst of her sorrow and go to work? — but the wealth also gives her nothing to do, instead allowing her the cruel luxury of wallowing in her grief. Restiveness becomes as much of a problem as her loss, and yet it’s never certain whether director Susanne Bier or writer Allan Loeb meant to make this an issue at all. It could be another byproduct of Steven’s uber-benevolence, but the film’s picture of a woman with nothing to do but mourn also smacks of emotional dishonesty.
Halle Berry, whose Oscar-winning turn as another fevered widow rife with sadness, anger and sexual frustration is impossibly similar, if less complicated, than this one, is adequate in her role of condensed sorrow. Del Toro is, of course, exceptional; oddly, he’s probably too good for his character, also drawing from an acclaimed earlier performance (21 Grams) of good-intentions and barely reigned self-loathing, but we never really know much about Jerry or his past to truly understand him. He’s a generous, kind guy who easily takes up the role of caregiver, never really betraying what flaw caused him to lapse so thoroughly into drug-addiction, despite Del Toro’s performance being so nuanced as to suggest as much. Much of the movie is admirably performed, but still somehow inert due to the rote depiction of bereavement; it’s almost as if the makers of Fire read or studied the textbook properties of grief and loss, having never actually experiencing either themselves.
Phillip Stephens is the lead critic for Pajiba. He lives in Fayetteville, AR.
Things We Lost in the Fire / Phillip Stephens
Film Reviews | October 19, 2007 | Comments ()