Things We Lost in the Fire Review

Last fall, Benicio Del Toro told Esquire magazine that he listens to specific music during film shoots to help get inside a character’s head, specifically citing The National’s album Alligator as an influence on his performance in Things We Lost in the Fire. The 2005 indie rock gem from the Brooklyn-based band is a collection of songs about self-delusion and doubt, and the various stages of realising the past can’t be repeated. Loss is a common theme, not in death so much as failure or, maybe, quiet frustration. It's the other kind of loss that serves as a central concern in Things We Lost in the Fire, although I’m afraid the poignant delicacy found on Alligator, and present in Del Toro’s performance, is otherwise missing from Susanne Bier’s film.

Bier, here making her Hollywood debut after directing a series of intricate films focussing on the inherent problems of family entanglements in her native Denmark, does what she can, but is ultimately stymied by that relentless beast that seems to get the better of too many European filmmakers when transitioning into English - movie star scripts. What we see of Allan Loeb’s screenplay is a confused mess, with awkward pacing and an unnatural tendency to shine dual lights in different directions. Halle Berry is the nominal star and plays a newly widowed mother of two struggling to accept and deal with the sudden loss of her impossibly perfect husband, played by David Duchovny. She gets a couple of emotionally forced moments that always seem less like acting than pretending. It’s not a performance of hysterics, though, and the silences are far more effective, if still flat. The role comes across as underwritten instead of under (or over) acted, but it contains too many faces of rigid, step-by-step stages of emotion that lack any ambiguity of purpose.

Del Toro is comparatively commanding as Jerry, the heroin addicted former lawyer who was the Duchovny character’s best friend from youth through death. The unlikely friendship is only one of the many implausibilities found in Loeb’s script, but it forms the only real compelling aspect of the movie. Without that, we’re left with a fairly standard story about a wife coming to terms with the unexpected loss of her husband. Unfortunately, that’s exactly where a good portion of the picture resides, and it’s distractingly predictable stuff. As is the sobriety, crisis, relapse, redemption arc for Del Toro. The actor throws up a few method tics and milks a showy heroin withdrawal scene, but he remains superb in the more challenging normal portions of the role, demonstrating the worn look of a man chasing his tail despite knowing full well he’s never going to catch it.

Aside from demonstrating Del Toro’s increasingly obvious ability to play most any role he can get his hands on, the movie has little else to give. Alison Lohman shows up as a fellow Narcotics Anonymous participant who seems to be a romantic interest designed solely to deflect attention away from the uncomfortable situation developing between Del Toro and Berry. Time jumps, hops, and skips by weeks and days without explanation or reason. The viewer starts to get the feeling that a no-holds-barred cage match between the two lead actors would be the only thing to save the film. Each thinks he or she has the lead role and acts accordingly, while the audience wonders why Seattle looks so sunny. One more needless SuperSonics reference and I’m ready to reach through the television and rip the head off of a shamelessly placed Shrek doll.

If Things We Lost in the Fire could just make up its mind which depressing topic it wants as a primary focus - grief or addiction - then we might have a decent film here. Instead, there’s some of one followed by a bit of the other, with the formula repeated throughout. It’s nonetheless made watchable by the excellent performances all around, everyone from Berry’s mostly subdued example of star acting and Del Toro’s forceful dancing between self-destruction and uneasy substitution to the less heralded work of John Carroll Lynch and Alexis Llewellyn. But the performance-driven movie falls short of effectively bringing it all together, and ultimately misses the mark. The idea to fracture the first half hour of the narrative into a nonlinear series of establishing plot points doesn’t help matters and looks out of place in comparison to the rest of the film.

The Disc



The R1 DreamWorks DVD is dual-layered and the film is transferred progressively for a roughly 2.35:1 aspect ratio, enhanced in anamorphic widescreen. Colours are exceptionally bright and the frequent blacks are rich and full of contrast. Bier favours extreme close-ups and the clarity and detail in these shots make for a strikingly impressive image. Scenes with less light aren't hardly as sharp. The film has a heavily saturated, unnatural look, but it's quite nice on DVD.

Audio is presented in an English Dolby Digital 5.1 track that’s not particularly strong or taxing to the stereo speakers. Mostly dialogue and sometimes barely spoken above a whisper, the volume levels are turned down pretty low in the mix and the rare Lou Reed or Frank Zappa soundtrack cut comes blaring through without warning. Other than that little annoyance, the audio is clean and acceptable. Spanish and French dubs are also included, as are English, French, and Spanish subtitles, yellow in colour.

Extra features are limited to a twenty-minute featurette entitled “A Discussion About Things We Lost in the Fire” and a selection of seven deleted scenes. The promisingly-named featurette is yet another piece of clip-heavy backslapping courtesy of DVD producer Laurent Bouzerau. All the principals are interviewed and everyone respects one another, but little insight is shared. It’s letterboxed and interlaced. The deleted scenes run 9:26 total and can be played individually or consecutively. Also nonanamorphic, they’re all time coded. The film’s theatrical trailer, in 1.78:1, and a set of previews for Into the Wild, Martin Scorsese’s Shine a Light, Beowulf, Margot at the Wedding, and The Kite Runner finish off the bonus material.

Film
6 out of 10
Video
9 out of 10
Audio
8 out of 10
Extras
3 out of 10
Overall

6

out of 10

Last updated: 19/04/2018 00:11:31

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