Running Time: 121 minutes
Rated: Rated MA 15+ (infrequent strong drug use, drug references and themes)
There are some films which immediately click and you know you are going to stay with them and enjoy them. There are others which take a long time to get into and you are not sure whether you will become fully involved. I was actually thinking this through during the first half hour or so of Things We Lost in the Fire and deciding that it was not a must-see film but it would be interesting if one happened upon it.
I am not sure at which point my opinion changed but, by the time of the final credits, I had a much greater admiration for the film and what it was communicating.
Though there is a reference to the garage fire of the film's title early in the film, it is not until towards the end that the meaning is made clear. As might be guessed, the screenplay says that it is only 'things' that are lost in fires; we still have people and relationships that keep us going.
The first part of the film moves around quite a bit time-wise. Almost immediately we discover that someone we thought was going to be a central character has died. The explanation of what happened is not given until later in a tragic flashback. What we have is the widow grieving, comforting her two children and dealing with those coming to the funeral. She decides to send her brother to inform and pick up her husband's best friend, someone she has detested for years. He and her husband grew up together and despite his being a failed lawyer and heroin-addict, her husband never gave up on him. He also becomes a link to her dead husband.
In fact, there are quite a few flashbacks to the happy 11 year marriage, the love between husband and wife and their relationship to their children, much of which is quite moving.
However, the bulk of the film is the tension between the widow and the addict. She invites him into her house to keep the link with her husband. He is marvellous with the children - which she then resents. He goes to Narcotics Anonymous meetings where a recovering young woman befriends him. A neighbour also befriends him and offers him a job. In this kind of film, it seems that the children always resent the new presence or potential parent-replacement - but, not at all, the children here respond well to him. It is their mother who has the problems which have some devastating consequences for him.
The film has been directed by Danish Susanne Bier (who made the fine films, Open Hearts, Brothers and After the Funeral). It is her first English-language film. Trained in the austerity of the Dogme manifesto, she brings a European sensibility to this American story as well as more intimate techniques of hand-held camera, frequent close-ups of eyes, lips, profiles as well as a feminine sensitivity to characters, especially to the wife and daughter.
And the performances are fine. Halle Berry has not had such a good role since she won her Oscar in 2001 for Monster's Ball. David Duchovny brings great warmth to his scenes as the husband, a good man who loves his family, who is completely generous to his seemingly unredeemable friend and who dies trying to help someone else. John Carroll Lynch brings depth to the neighbour bewildered by the death and harassed by his snobbish wife.
But it is Benicio del Toro as the addict who gives a truly memorable performance, full of nuances which illustrate the weakness and the addiction as well a great deal of innate goodness. His cold turkey scenes are convincing and harrowing.
One of the wise words of advice in the film is the urging of characters to 'accept the good'. There are other wise themes: that all of us, no matter in what poor light we see ourselves or how low we fall, are lovable; that an untimely death can be the occasion for someone else's coming to life again; that life is basically about love, second (or more) chances and about hope.
Paramount Out February 14
Fr Peter Malone MSC directs the film desk of SIGNIS: the World Association of Catholic Communicators, and is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.