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Friday, March 28, 2008

'Things We Lost in the Fire'

For love is strong as death

How easily we are numbed by routine. We wake up each morning expecting the world to be much like it always is, barely aware that one day we will awake to find that someone so close, so needed, in our lives is no longer there.

Things We Lost in the Fire Rating: (4 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
David Duchovny and Benicio Del Toro © 2007 DREAMWORKS LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Director: Susanne Bier
Running time: 118 minutes
Language: English
Opens March 29, 2008
[See Japan Times movie listing]

The sudden loss of a loved one is so devastating; the grief can seem unbearable. And yet, we are forced to bear it and — harder still — move on.

There is no set way to work through such a situation; everyone is left to struggle through as best they can, finding some way to honor that lost life and some kind of inner resolution as well. That's the subject of director Susanne Bier's latest, "Things We Lost in the Fire," released in Japan as "Kanashimi ga Kawaku Made."

In the film, Halle Berry plays Audrey, a happily married mother who suddenly finds herself a widow when her husband, Brian (David Duchovny), is killed in an act of random violence. That's how death strikes, mercilessly; her husband just goes out for ice cream for the kids one night and never comes home.

At the funeral, Audrey meets Jerry (Benicio Del Toro), Brian's closest friend since childhood. Once a promising lawyer, Jerry is now a skid-row heroin addict; Brian, seen in flashback, stuck by Jerry even when everyone else had deserted him, including Audrey, who had always resented Jerry's ties to Brian.

For motives which she herself isn't entirely clear on, Audrey invites Jerry to stay at her home in an upper-class Seattle neighborhood and get off the needle. Maybe she's doing it for Brian, maybe she senses Jerry's good with her kids, maybe she just needs somebody around. Jerry takes her up on the offer, and moves into an unfinished studio on the property.

The film, scripted by Allan Loeb, sets out an almost too-neat parallel: Death-wish Jerry, with nothing to live for, gradually opens up to this surrogate family; once successful and fulfilled Audrey, having seen her life shattered, teeters on the edge of the abyss. Audrey makes moves to help Jerry, but she also asks him about drugs, saying "I want to know what it feels like to escape." Jerry is proud to be there for Brian's kids, Harper and Dory (Alexis Llewellyn and Micah Berry), but finds himself thrown when 6-year-old Harper says, in all innocence, "You can marry my mom, and then she'd be happy again." Jerry murmurs, "But that would make it like my best friend never existed."

"Things We Lost in the Fire" is an exceptionally moving portrait of the aftermath of loss, full of grief, anger, confusion, and the bittersweet, almost guilty return of hope. It shows how it is that while we can find happiness in others, we can only find strength in ourselves.

While not a light film, it is not as monolithically heavy as some of the other melodramas these actors are known for, such as "21 Grams" or "Monster's Ball." Del Toro, in particular, brings a dazed sense of humor to his role, especially in scenes with Audrey's neighbor Howard (John Carroll Lynch), a good-natured square who's desperate to unload on someone about his impending divorce.

Del Toro's got just the right laconic cool needed to play the kind of junkie who listens to Lou Reed, and Berry shines, moving through the whole range of emotions without ever overplaying them; at long last, we again see the Oscar-winning actress who was so intense in "Monster's Ball".

Director Bier, who was loosely affiliated with Lars Von Trier's Dogma 95 movement, had an acclaimed career in Denmark over the past decade-plus before producer/director Sam Mendes ("American Beauty") lured her to Hollywood for this, her first English-language film. (Bier's last two films, "After The Wedding" and "Brothers," received a dual-release in Japan last December.)

Unlike most of her Danish contemporaries, Bier does not opt for shock or self-consciously artificial narratives. Rather, her main focus is a raw emotional realism mixed with a scrambled, free-associating approach to cutting scenes, and the occasional lull of poetic stillness, focusing in close on the actor's bodies or eyes. Everything good about her earlier films is here — along with a wonderful, lilting score by the currently hot Gustavo Santaolalla — and the shaky Dogma-style camerawork is a bit more under control, thankfully.

"Things we Lost" is a more hopeful, even heart-tuggingly sentimental piece of filmmaking than, say, "After the Wedding." And if "Things We Lost in the Fire" offers some light at the end of the tunnel, it does so honestly. Neither a Hollywood feel-good movie, nor its indie equivalent, a feel-bad movie, Bier's film takes the reasonable view that life will throw us punches, and it's up to us to roll with them.

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