October 25, 2007

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Things We Lost in the Fire (R)
A woman tries to accept the death of her husband in part by helping his junkie best friend in Things We Lost in the Fire, a strange and somewhat quiet movie.

We meet Audrey Burke (Halle Berry) as she prepares for her husband Brian Burke’s (David Duchovny) funeral. She’s scattered, seeming only half-aware of what’s around her. She seems afraid of going into her husband’s office and remembers at the last moment that she’s forgotten to invite someone. She sends her brother Neal (Omar Benson Miller) to find Jerry (Benicio Del Toro), her husband’s friend from childhood and a man he always considered his best friend. Neal must deliver the news that Brian has died and pull Jerry together enough to bring him to the funeral.

You see, Jerry is a rather hardcore junkie. Audrey wasn’t particularly happy that Brian still saw Jerry. She suspected that Brian’s only purpose in Jerry’s life was to buy things (groceries, dinner) for Jerry and that Jerry just took from Brian without appreciating him in any way. In flashbacks, we see Audrey suspect Jerry of stealing cash from their car. But Brian is absolutely steadfast in his unwillingness to give up on Jerry.

After the funeral, a still broken Audrey goes to look for Jerry and finds him in a methadone clinic (where he does odd jobs and stays for free but doesn’t take methadone, he tells her). For reasons that she doesn’t even understand, she tells him to come home with her, offering him a room in the garage that (due to a recent fire) has been renovated into an empty but livable sort of guest space.

Jerry is reluctant but he moves in and almost instantly becomes the center of a small circle of people Brian left behind. In addition to Audrey, there are her two children (who quickly come to depend on him) and the Burkes’ neighbor Howard (John Carroll Lynch), a somewhat lonely man who gets Jerry to take Brian’s place accompanying him on his morning run.

This kind of “normal” life seems baffling to Jerry. He enjoys being with the kids, enjoys the surprisingly intimate relationships with Audrey and Howard. But his addiction doesn’t just vanish. He goes to a 12-step meeting, where Kelly (Alison Lohman), an addict further down the recovery road, takes an interest in him. But these things aren’t always enough to keep him from the sadness that has him sliding back to the needle.

Things We Lost in the Fire is a strange movie. At times, its portraits of people wading through grief the way you’d wade through heavy mud feel very much like windows on reality. Yes, this is how children would act — clingy, rebellious, thoroughly uncertain about life — when they lose a parent. This is how a wife would act — angry, scared, lonely. But then at times the camera seems to stall out on these scenes and on the characters’ emotions and the movie starts to drag. While the itch to move things along isn’t as jarring to the sober tone of the movie as, say, slapstick would have been, it does take you out of the film. Audrey starts to feel less like a real person in pain and more like a role created by an actress trying to keep up the intensity of her performance.

What saves the movie is Del Toro. He seems made to play this kind of character, his dazed expressions perfectly telegraphing the mixture of drug addiction and grief that seems to guide Jerry. In the flashbacks of Jerry and Brian, the scenes even capture the delicate relationship a friend or family member has to have with an addict. You can’t lecture, you can’t excuse — finding a way of treating that person like something approaching the sober person you (hopefully) once knew is like threading the narrowest needle. Their relationship and (for the most part) Jerry are the most genuine parts of this film and a good argument for sitting through some of the story’s slower parts. B-

Rated R for drug content and language. Directed by Susanne Bier and written by Allan Loeb, Things We Lost in the Fire is an hour and 58 minutes long and distributed by Paramount Pictures.