October 23, 2007

Movie Review: Things We Lost in the Fire

Is it all right with you if I say I haven't made up my mind about this movie? It is simultaneously a film that explores grief, addiction, recovery, and redemption. It also seems to have a singular purpose, to make you sad. Things We Lost in the Fire has "feel bad" written all over it. It is almost impossible to escape. For most of its near two hour runtime, I felt trapped within the free flowing bad karma that was just pouring off the screen. Now, it was successful at that, however I am not sure it was "good." It certainly featured some good performances, but they came with a heavy price, self-important filmmaking. It was this impression that I got, intended or not, and it weighed heavily on the rest of the experience.

Things We Lost in the Fire opens during a funeral. There are many people walking around the home, but there is one figure that appears to be out of place. That person is Jerry (Benicio Del Toro). He is disheveled and keeps primarily to himself. He has a desire to be there, but feels cut off from the rest. In particular, Audrey Burke (Halle Berry), the grieving widow whose home we are in.

Through flashbacks we learn that Audrey's husband, Steven (David Duchovny), died in a freak act of violence. We also learn that Steven's childhood best friend, Jerry, is a heroin addict who lives in a seedy part of town. Steven would visit his friend on his birthday each year, much to the chagrin of his wife, who feared for his safety and never took a liking to Jerry's "situation."

Following the funeral, Audrey is having trouble dealing with the loss of her husband. Not hard to believe, losing the love of your life has to be an absolutely horrible experience to live through, much less get past. Seemingly as a way of trying to deal, she surprises herself by inviting Jerry to move into the room next to the garage. I am guessing that she is seeking to supplant Steven's Good Samaritan nature with regards to his long time friend.

Jerry moves in and works on getting himself clean, with a little help from a friendly neighbor (John Carroll Lynch) and Audrey and Steven's children, Dory and Harper (Micah Berry and Alexis Llewllyn, respectively). The impetus for this latest attempt at cleanliness was the death of Steven, his only friend, the only person to not give up on him.

The film follows Jerry in his attempt to get and stay clean parallelling Audrey's attempt to come to some sort of grips with the lose of her husband. She uses him as an emptional punching bag, saying it should have been him who died, while he takes as much as he can focusing on getting clean only to falter when she presses too hard. It is a fact she realizes, and steps up to try and help him clean up again.

The surface of the story is fairly simple. What is difficult is the emotional minefield that the two leads must traverse in order to simply survive their respective ordeals. The problem is that it is such a downer that I had a hard time breaking into the material. It is brutally honest. The issues are not sugar coated, they are scabs ripped open and exposed to burning antiseptic that is poured over them only to have the scabs ripped away again.

The performances, on all fronts are very strong. In particular, Benicio Del Toro is excellent. I could feel his pain, his desire to do the right thing. He is a vibrant character who doesn't glorify the drug-addicted lifestyle. Just watch his eyes, there is an extraordinary depth there. Halle Berry, who has always struck me as a pretty face with serviceable acting skills puts on a very good performance her, although there were times I just wanted to smack her character for the things she was doing. However, I am guessing that was part of the point.

As for the reasons why I did not like the movie, well they can all be targeted at the creative team. There was an annoying self aware, Lifetime movie quality that bothered me. Drugs are bad, it is tough to lose a loved one, look at me, I can make you feel bad. Combine that with the extreme overuse of extreme close-ups. How many eyeballs do we need to look at? Shots of sad eyes (and various other parts) are shown to file nearly the entire frame. I found it to be very annoying and only exist to service the director's desires rather than the service of the story.

Bottomline. These close-ups and self-aware aura permeated the majority of the film. At times I longed for it to be over, but only after Benicio's next scene. I have to rank the experience as a frustrating one. Strong performances and raw emotion competing with "look at me" direction. I can only recommend this if you want to feel bad while staring at Halle's eyeball on a number of occasions.

Mildly Recommended.


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