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THINGS WE LOST IN THE FIRE

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Halle Berry, Benicio Del Toro, David Duchovny, Alison Lohman, Omar Benson Miller, John Carroll Lynch
Director: Susanne Bier
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio: Dreamworks
Features: See Review
Length: 118 Minutes
Release Date: March 4, 2008

“Why am I here?”

Film ***

I’ve come to the conclusion that in the wrong hands, Things We Lost in the Fire would come across as nothing more than an over the top melodrama. What Danish director Susanne Bier has done with here is taken familiar dramatic elements such as death, grieving from loss and drug addiction and stripped the story of its clichés. The result is a film that is unconventional as a result of the approach of the filmmakers and the powerful performances, not to mention one of the more fitting and terrific movie titles of recent memory.

The film opens on a big tragic note; devoted husband and family man Brian (David Duchovny) is dead. Newly widowed Audrey (Halle Berry) is about to begin funeral proceedings. It isn’t until the last minute before the funeral that she forgets to inform her deceased husband’s lifelong friend, Jerry (Benicio Del Toro), of the news.

The story structure is one of the surprising elements of the film. Interweaving flashbacks with the present, we come to learn how much Brian meant to both his wife and his friend, making his loss all the more tragic. We learn that Jerry has had a bad history of drug addiction, and yet Brian was the only person who cared enough to check up on him. We also see the depths of the relationship with wife Audrey and their two children, Harper (Alexis Llewellyn) and Dory (Micah Berry). And we do see the incident that lead to his death.

Meanwhile, in the present time, the core of the story deals with how Audrey and Jerry not only deal with the loss, but also become drawn to one another as a result of the tragedy. She was never fond of Jerry for obvious reasons. But she needs help with her children, and asks Jerry to be something of a stand-in for Brian. She even offers him shelter in the garage.

The story also deals with Jerry’s addiction, which is something he hasn’t officially rid himself of. He does end up experiencing a relapse or two. But realizing that he may matter to someone now, as well as growing attached to Brian’s children, he finally has the courage to check into rehab.

Both Bier, making her first English language film, and screenwriter Allan Loeb paint a true to life examination of the effects resulting from a collision of grief and addiction. I’ve experienced grief, and thankfully have never experienced any kind of drug or alcohol addiction, but I could never imagine experiencing the two feelings at the same time. Seeing Benicio Del Toro’s shattering portrait of a man going through both emotions perfectly conveyed how amazingly difficult it must be.

Mr. Del Toro doesn’t carry the film alone, though, as Halle Berry delivers her strongest piece of acting in years, with an emotionally charged performance that illustrates why she won the oscar in the first place. I, for one, am very happy to see her rebound from her previous cinematic debacles, especially in the same year as the god-awful Perfect Stranger.

Honest and quite heartbreaking, Things We Lost In the Fire is razor sharp dramatic storytelling at its finest. Material like this would end up at a TV movie level in the wrong hands, but the fresh approach established by the filmmakers exceeds it to such a higher quality. That and the phenomenal acting by the cast make this a must see for those who appreciate character-driven drama.

Video ***1/2

This Dreamworks release boasts quite an impressive video presentation. The anamorphic presentation is for the most part clean and crisp, and the unique camera work applied by cinematographer Tom Stern provides some strong and effective imagery. Some bits of grain is detected in a scene or two, both of which are darkly lit, but nonetheless this is an all around fine looking disc.

Audio ***

Though strictly a dialogue-driven film, the 5.1 mix does manage to deliver quite a memorable sound performance nonetheless. The subtle and distinctive music score by Johan Soderqvist plays off with excellent results, as does additional music included in the soundtrack. Dialogue delivery is terrifically clear and well heard, as well.

Features **1/2

Included is a well-handled 20 minute featurette titled “A Discussion of Things We Lost in the Fire”, which doesn’t feel like a traditional behind the scenes piece. Also featured are seven Deleted Scenes, a Theatrical Trailer and Bonus Previews for additional Paramount/Dreamworks titles.

Summary:

You don’t often see the level of intimate human connection as depicted in Things We Lost In the Fire, which makes it all the more enriching. The performances are absolutely first rate and the filmmaking approach really plays a big part in making this film stand out amongst other films dealing with the same subject matter.

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