Wednesday, October 31, 2007


I read screenwriter Allan Loeb's brilliant, penetrating script THINGS WE LOST IN THE FIRE about two years ago, and what struck me immediately, was the honesty and poignancy of his words. Now, having seen Danish director Susanne Bier's brilliant, penetrating film THINGS WE LOST IN THE FIRE, I can safely say (and I was worried), that she has deftly brought Loeb's fascinating characters to vivid life on the big screen without sacrificing anything that made the script such a satisfying read. I mention that I was worried because I connected deeply to the script, more than I ever would have thought. I fell in love with the characters and cared for them in a way that I normally don't when I read a script. And I wanted the movie-watching experience to at least match, if not exceed, the reading experience. I have not seen any of Bier's previous films; after looking her up at the, I've noticed that she's been critically acclaimed (an Oscar nom for best foreign language film) and that at least one of her films is getting a Hollywood remake. I have now added all of her available movies to my Netflix queue.

THINGS WE LOST IN THE FIRE is a film that might sound terribly familiar in its simple story outline, but I can assure it, it's far from ordinary. Halle Berry, in her best performance since MONSTER'S BALL, gives a tender performance as Audrey Burke, a woman who has been deeply affected by the recent murder of her saint-like husband Steven, warmly played by David Duchovny. Audrey reaches out to Steven's best friend, Jerry Sunborne, played with astonishing grace and power by the masterful Benicio Del Toro, who is a recovering heroin addict and ex-lawyer. Steven and Jerry had been best friends since childhood, and Audrey never approved of Steven's friendship with Jerry, always feeling that Jerry would get Steven into some sort of trouble. But Audrey, the good-hearted woman that she is, feels compelled to track Jerry down so that he can attend the funeral, and as a result of his attendance, they quickly develop a new, complex, and ultimately uplifting friendship that helps both of them heal their numerous problems. Never the hint of sexuality between the two except for one, confusing emotional moment, Audrey and Jerry ground each other in a new, scary reality, both leaning on each other for support and guidance.

This may sound hokey and too chick-flicky but I can assure you it's not. Beyond Del Toro's riveting performance (which I'll delve into in a moment) and Berry's affecting work, it's the clarity of voice in every character and the artsy, up-close and personal directorial style of Bier that elevate the already excellent script to the realm of small masterpiece. This isn't a big movie or a multi-layered expose or cheap melodrama; these are real people living in a world of close approximation to our own, with believable emotional struggles, all played out in the most intimate of terms. Bier, working with the cinematographer Tom Stern (Clint Eastwood's recent cameraman of choice on FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS, LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA, and MYSTIC RIVER), opts for hand-held cameras and intense close-up's of her actor's eyes and faces, in an effort to gleam any and all natural human responses from the subject matter. At first it was a little distracting, if only because you normally don't see this type of cinematography in major Hollywood productions (this is Dreamworks release). But the style suits the substance, and Bier gets extra mileage out of any scene where her camera darts and weaves in an effort to ring any and all emotional impact from her performers faces.

Simply put, Del Toro gives the performance of the year, and one of the best performances of the decade. Yes, the decade. I am not over exaggerating here. Del Toro, already a tremendously accomplished actor who has given amazing performances in films such as TRAFFIC, FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS and 21 GRAMS, is uncompromising as Jerry. Never coming off as overly-actorish and abandoning the easy histrionics that a lesser actor might bring to a role like this, Del Toro embodies Jerry with a surprising level of warmth and humor that is relatively unorthodox for a character of this sort. When the script does call for Jerry to suffer the effects of heroin withdrawal, Del Toro doesn't overplay the moment; he doesn't need to. The audience, out of an already casual understanding of the effects of heroic addiction, knows the deal; Del Toro seals it in a raw, compelling manner that will make you sit straight up in your chair. One scene in particular, what I like to refer to as "the candy bar scene" (see the movie and you'll know what I'm talking about), is one of the best scenes in any movie of the year. There are so many small moments of perfection (glances, pauses, quick body movements) in his performance that it's tantamount to an acting clinic. If Del Toro is snubbed for his work in THINGS WE LOST IN THE FIRE, which may very well be the case as a result of the terrible box office the film as gathered, it would be a disservice to the acting process and a slap in the face of an actor working at the top of his game.

To her credit, Berry could have been completely overshadowed by Del Toro's Brando-esque bravura, but she isn't. Audrey has two young children to deal with as well, and the interaction between her and her kids is as inspiring as it is sad. One dinner table scene in which Audrey, her kids, Jerry, and some family friends discuss Steven and his likes and dislikes, is heartbreakingly real. And in her one big scene of emotional outburst, because the sorrow and pain hasn't been laid on too thick, Berry makes the audience crumble in their seats. Actors sometimes feel the need to oversell a dramatic or painful moment in movies like these, but here, Berry, Bier and Loeb smartly know that less is more. It's a quietly anguished piece of acting that deserves Oscar recognition as well.

THINGS WE LOST IN THE FIRE is a tough drama that is not an easy sell to most audiences. The film deals with scarily real scenarios (the sudden, tragic, and inexcusable loss of a loved one and the dreadful effects of drug addiction) but somehow finds a way to be uplifting in the end. And not in a tacky or artificial way, which is often how moves of this sort feel because you're constantly aware of the filmmaker's desire to pluck your heartstrings and force you to feel something that doesn't deserve to be felt. THINGS WE LOST IN THE FIRE is a challenging film for discerning audiences and one of the best movies of the year by far.

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