Things We Lost in the Fire (2007) dir. Susanne Bier
Starring: Halle Berry, Benicio Del Toro, David Duchovny, Alison Lohman
In the last scene of “Things We Lost in the Fire” Benicio Del Toro’s character Jerry Sunborne speaks to camera, repeating the line “one day at a time, one day at a time”. This mantra is the running theme in former Dogme 95 director Susanne Bier's first American film - an honest humanistic story about recovery from tragedy.
Jerry Sunborn is a recovering heroin addict and Halle Berry’s character, Audrey is recovering from the sudden death of her husband, Brian (David Duchovny). These details are carefully laid out to us in the opening act like a non-linear puzzle. The first scene takes place after Brian's death, when Audrey remembers she forgot to invite David’s childhood friend Jerry to the wake. Who is Jerry? Flashing back we see Brian and Jerry interact, revealing a pair going in opposite directions – Brian’s secure family life and Jerry’s irresponsible downward spiral of drug dependency.
When the characters and inciting events are unraveled we’re left with a woman with two children widowed and an addict lost without his own trustworthy friend. Instinctively Audrey invites Jerry to stay with her and the kids – in part to help around the house, but really to be someone to take Brian’s place. As Jerry becomes closer with Audrey’s children the more she realizes the irresponsibility of replacing their father as such.
The events of film, despite the heavy material, manages to eschew melodrama and surprisingly come out hopeful and optimistic. Off the top the films bears the heavy weight of Brian’s death – a man characterized as near saintly, well-educated family man, with an enviable moral core. There’s no tarnish on Brian to discover only an ideal life Audrey may never be able to find again.
And so Audrey’s actions are taken “one day at a time”. Her invitation to Jerry to stay is made with dishonesty, at one point she ponders trying heroin to provide her an escape from her pain. Actions and thoughts like this aren’t made with the long term in mind, but the day by day thought processes of someone struggling to fit themselves back into a previous life.
Jerry Sunborn’s recovery is not as complex. Jerry is too reactive, instead following Audrey, her kids and her friends, rarely questioning or conflicting substantially with her actions. Sunborn’s goals and desires are never broaded past his need to go straight. Bier and writer Allan Loeb even let the character off the hook when we learn that Jerry was a lawyer before his addiction – a revelation which easier allows the audience to accept Jerry’s recovery.
“Things We Lost in the Fire” was Susanne Bier’s first American film. If you haven’t seen her previous work, specifically her trilogy of intense humanistic Danish dramas (“Open Hearts”, “Brothers” and “After the Wedding”), best to start with these other titles. In this film her characters are never challenged strongly enough to think, despite the despair of the situation, they won’t come out stronger in the end. Specifically “Brothers”, is her most powerful film about a family torn apart by tragedy. Try and find that title.
“Things We Lost in the Fire” is available on Blu-Ray from Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment