Watching “Things We Lost in the Fire,” a drama about the effect of a man’s murder on his grieving wife and family and his drug-addicted best friend, one begins to imagine what it might have been like if Ingmar Bergman had ever had to get studio notes on his latest script.
“Very powerful stuff, Ingmar. Very powerful. But we think the death would be sadder if you could make the husband a nicer guy. You know, loving husband, great with the kids, devoted to his sad-sack pal whom everyone else abandoned. Not a dry eye in the house, believe me. And instead of shooting in a Danish housing project, let’s set it in a lush Seattle suburb. No need to depress the audience any further with cold weather and those grim buildings.”
Halle Berry, digging her teeth into the first meaty big-screen role she’s been offered since snagging an Oscar for “Monster’s Ball,” plays Audrey, a wife and mother whose life is shattered by the senseless murder of her husband, played by David Duchovny. The filmmakers couldn’t have made Duchovny’s character more saintly if they tried — heck, he even dies protecting a stranger who’s being beaten on the sidewalk by her abusive husband.
Also rocked by Duchovny’s death is Benicio del Toro as Jerry, a lawyer who has thrown his life away for heroin. Audrey needs a man around the house, and Jerry needs a place where he can kick the junk, so he moves in.
Wisely, this isn’t a set-up for a romantic comedy; Audrey resents Jerry for being alive when her husband is dead, and even tells him so to his face. When Audrey’s two children begin bonding with Jerry, she becomes furious that he is attempting to fill her late husband’s shoes, even though that’s the last thing on his mind. But when Jerry backslides and goes back to shooting up, Audrey and her family are there for him.
Susanne Bier, director of the acclaimed “After the Wedding,” makes her U.S. filmmaking debut here, and there’s a definite tug-of-war between her European sensibilities and the Hollywood schmaltz she’s been given to craft. On the plus side, the movie features blisteringly powerful work by Berry and del Toro — Bier likes shooting close-ups on her actors’ eye, singular, and these two inhabit their characters all the way down to the cornea.
Where the film’s ambitions crumble is in its avowed refusal to make its audience too uncomfortable. Problems get resolved quickly, comic relief is injected, strangers express kindness — there’s always something going on to relieve any tension that might build up, and it feels like a cheat.
If Bier were directing this same story in, say, France, you’d have 90 minutes of Isabelle Huppert smoking, crying, and shrieking, and we would be right there with her, feeling her pain. “Things We Left in the Fire,” for all its individual moments of real emotion, feels like the Disney animated version of “On Death and Dying.”