Audrey (Halle Berry) has a pretty good life. Or, rather, she did. We only see how great it was in the rear-view mirror: A rich-but-real marriage to Brian (David Duchovny), two great kids (Micah Nicolas Berry and Harper Burke); a beautiful home. But Brian's dead – horribly, suddenly, because someone angry had a gun – and we see Audrey wandering through her crowded, empty beautiful home, absently comforting her children, preparing for the wake, trying to understand that Brian is gone. The past and present mingle for us, as they do for Audrey; we're pulled into the dislocated murmur and hum of her grief. But something snaps Audrey to attention: She didn't invite Jerry. Audrey doesn't really know Jerry (Benicio Del Toro); he's one of Brian's oldest friends, a lawyer who got addicted to heroin and pretty much fell out of the world. She doesn't really like Jerry, either; we witness past fights and skirmishes between her and Brian about her husband's bond with this lost man. And yet, it becomes very important that Jerry be invited to the funeral and the wake – in part because Audrey would rather think about anything other than what's actually happening, in part because she's trying to hold on to even the smallest fragments of the life that's been lost.
Things We Lost in the Fire could very easily have played at the shallow, simplistic level of a TV movie, or as a lightweight weeper destined to being watched only in rainy-Sunday re-runs on cable. But somewhere along the line, a few interesting choices were made, and Things We Lost in the Fire is all the better for them. Dreamworks chose Denmark's Susanne Bier (After the Wedding, Brothers) to direct Allan Loeb's screenplay; Del Toro and Berry were signed to star. And the end result of those decisions is up on the screen – and far better than it could have been. This is a film that, essentially, earns what it does, one that's not manipulative but rather simply effective, one that confounds or exceeds your expectations as often as it meets them. And, thanks to Del Toro, it's defined by a completely brilliant, wholly absorbing performance from one of our best actors, a piece of acting so good you can feel the entire movie reaching and working to try to come up to his level. You could deconstruct and dissect every moment of Del Toro's performance; as casual and shambling and ruined as Jerry looks, Del Toro's built that sprawling collapsed structure brick by brick. But it never feels mannered or forced, either, and if you did analyze it, you'd miss the simple immediacy and power of his work. At the wake, Audrey and Brian's neighbor Howard (John Carroll Lynch) cages a smoke from Jerry, takes a few jittery, nervy drags as they talk and then stubs it under his foot before going back to his wife; Jerry waits until Howard's gone, checks to see nobody's watching, picks the butt up, puts it away. And, instantly, we get it: Jerry's the kind of guy who doesn't waste a jolt, or a dime -- and who doesn't want anyone to see him being that crafty-careful, either. When Audrey, for reasons even she can't quite comprehend or articulate, asks Jerry if he'd like to move into the unfinished apartment she and Brian built in their garage, Jerry's reluctant. Sure, it's a nice garage, and it's a nice offer, and he's been clean for a few weeks, but ... the suburbs? Audrey's reluctant, too – it's not as if Brian had Jerry up to the house a lot, or ever – but it's almost as if she needs to do something, and this will do.
Bier made her film Open Hearts following in the hand-held, natural-fake footsteps of Lars Von Trier's Dogme movement; while Things We Lost in the Fire is hardly that "pure" stylistically, it's also not as burnished or smooth as you'd expect from a Hollywood film, either. Bier will give us a sudden close-up, an eye or trembling lip filling the frame. Bier explained that aesthetic in an interview for Things We Lost in the Fire: " ... it sort of, in a weird way, alienates you from the spirit of the person for a split second. But it takes you very deep into their emotional state of mind. Because you don't see the face anymore; you only see an abstract image of an eye, or of what could be an eye, or could be a part of a mouth or a hand or a tea cup; then it's like a wide shot, like a landscape. ..." It's also the sort of technique that will split audiences down the middle as firmly as the stroke of a butcher's cleaver; for every person who appreciates the expressive, avant-garde shots, I can easily imagine another person finding them annoying or unnecessary, or simply muttering discontentedly Hey, I paid to see all of Halle Berry. ...
And yet Bier's technique is, in the end, a frame around Del Toro's performance. This isn't to say that Berry isn't good -- she is, and in a few scenes she's excellent, not only performing a role but willing it to follow it into ugly places. Her performance is a terrific mix of technique and talent and bravery on her part, she has scenes -- like the late-night conversation where she asks Jerry what it's like to do heroin, explaining she's asking because she longs for oblivion -- where she's extraordinary. But then Del Toro will do something as Jerry, and he's all we need out of the film. Jerry's great with kids because in many ways he's still one himself; Jerry's got junkie's charm to spare; Jerry's wheezing and groaning when Howard invites him for a morning jog because that's what Howard and Brian used to do; Jerry gets caught when he's about to lift the silverware to sell it for a fix, stone-cold busted ... by a ten-year-old girl, and he's as embarrassed as he is shameless. And I can't say what, exactly, it is Del Toro gets right in each of those scenes; I only know I can't imagine anyone else being as good, as real, as riveting in the part. Things We Lost in the Fire may not go too far astray from what you'd expect, but it doesn't take any shortcuts, either: It shows us pain and grief and effort and work in all their messy, human glory. Things We Lost in the Fire may be an occasionally-awkward mix of the conventional and the avant-garde, but Del Toro's performance alone makes it worth seeking out.