Things We Lost in the Fire at first seems like the kind of fall movie that arrives in theaters with the sternness of a schoolteacher. Its plot involves the murder of a family man, the anger of a widow, and the rehabilitation of a drug addict. You can’t miss the banners that the film holds aloft like picket signs: Its actors, in this case Halle Berry and Benicio Del Toro, are courting Oscar. Audience members, you will feel your guts punched, your hearts wrenched, your mascara running. Bring tissues, and if possible a hard back for your chair, because such rawness shouldn’t be experienced from the comfort of a cushy stadium seat.
Remarkably, though, the American debut of Danish director Susanne Bier feels neither like an Academy groveler nor a homework assignment—it’s simply a solid drama, more blemished by small, forgivable missteps than grandiosity. Allan Loeb’s script (his first to see release, though a stack of future productions sets him up to become Hollywood’s “it” scribe) is built, for instance, on a cliché. Steven and Audrey Burke (David Duchovny and Berry) are blissfully wed. He’s a successful real-estate developer who makes enough money that Audrey need only concern herself with further beautifying their home and taking care of their gorgeous kids, 10-year-old Harper (Alexis Llewellyn) and 6-year-old Dory (Micah Berry, no relation to Halle).
The couple’s biggest conflict is over Steven’s friend Jerry (Del Toro), a heroin addict who was his best bud growing up. “Every time you leave here [to see him],” Audrey tells Steven when he wants to visit Jerry on his birthday, “I’m scared to death you won’t come back.” He goes anyway. Turns out that Audrey’s fear was misguided. Steven was fine in the ghetto; it was in their own clean, idyllic suburb where he was in danger, killed while out on an ice cream run. Ever the perfect man, Steven died being a hero, shot when he intercepted a man beating his wife and tried to call 911.
Things We Lost in the Fire is told in flashbacks, with the first major scene occurring the day of Steven’s funeral. We meet Jerry, who’s been fetched from his hole-in-the-wall apartment after Audrey realized in a panic she forgot to tell him about her husband’s death. He cleaned up nice, even if his suit is a little big, and he has an easy manner with the kids. Audrey thanks him profusely for coming before blurting out, “I hated you. I hated you for so many years.”
As the film backs over itself, we see why. Audrey wasn’t only worried about Steven’s safety when he was with him. She thought the forever-relapsing Jerry was hopeless, a liar and a thief. When a few $20 bills go missing from the family car, Audrey is sure she knows what happened. But Steven saw goodness in him, and they loved each other, and Audrey needs something to fill the crater left by her husband’s passing. So she spends some time with Jerry the day of the funeral and later goes to visit him, only to discover he’s moved from a tenement to a meth clinic. The more she thinks about it, the more Audrey realizes that, beneath Jerry’s druggie exterior lies, well, Benicio Del Toro. (OK, he also seems like a decent guy.) So she invites him to stay in the family’s finished garage until he can clean up.
For all its drama and sadness, Things We Lost in the Fire is a rather quiet movie. Bier, whose last project, 2006’s After the Wedding, was an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, lets Audrey’s grief play out in little ways—her hesitation to go into Steven’s office, her sudden outburst at the breakfast table when the kids are teasing each other—while Jerry’s presence unobtrusively makes everyone feel better. Del Toro’s character isn’t some magical gutter-boy there to teach everyone life lessons. He’s just a distraction—someone for Audrey to cook for and ask after, and for the kids to play basketball with. And their company, not to mention the simple fact of treating him like a worthy human being, puts pressure on the clearly personable and whip-smart Jerry to stop using. (Lest you imagine bluebirds singing midfilm, Audrey’s family is hardly a cure-all.) This isn’t a story about loss as much as the power of interaction to help heal. One scene in particular, in which a dinner guest simply asks Audrey a battery of mundane questions about Steven, demonstrates this astonishingly well.
There are wrong notes here, including an out-of-character scene in which Audrey, all sultrylike, tells Jerry that she wants to try heroin, and Bier is obsessed with the one-eye closeup, a shot she uses so often it starts to feel parodic. But the performances make Things We Lost in the Fire. Berry is at her Monster’s Ball best with a tough character, forced to switch from generous and loving to bitter and angry; her Audrey is both warm and steely, sometimes to a frightening degree. Del Toro is simply riveting. Again, his triumphs are small, mostly matters of expression: Jerry’s slightly panicked look while eating dinner with Audrey’s kids and a couple of their young friends, or his rather funny befuddlement when a neighbor drops by, while Jerry’s in midsmoke, to ask if he wants to go jogging. Of course, the character is a user, so there are moments when Del Toro needs to dial it up. Even as Jerry’s relapsing, though, Del Toro spares us the histrionics. You’ve never seen anyone play half-dead better.