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.