Audrey Burke has it all: the handsome, successful husband (a tame and sweetly endearing David Duchovny), two adorable children, a gorgeous house, nifty neighbors, time to pursue her hobbies -- and doesn't appreciate any of it. Or so we're led to believe as "Things We Lost in the Fire' gets under way. Only after suffering a devastating loss does she gain some perspective and grow beyond the one-dimensional wife and mom initially portrayed. Hopeless and sleepless in Seattle, Audrey appears at once torn and together; shattered yet brave.
In a controlled yet nonetheless gripping performance, Halle Berry is stunning as the inconvenienced widow caught without a plan. Incensed that her do-gooder husband Steve (murdered while trying to perform a noble deed) still cared about and tended to Jerry -- his friend since childhood -- she reluctantly invites the barely recovered derelict into the family; and both are transformed.
As a former lawyer who matter-of-factly describes himself as "a recovering heroin addict," Benicio Del Toro is marvelous. Destitute and alone, he is never pitiful and always thoughtful, an oddly touching combination of aloof addict and comforting best friend. In time, he deftly takes on the role of substitute dad as well.
Bracingly real, this profoundly provocative slice of cushy suburban life never shies way from the messier side of Jerry's existence: from the free-basing and decrepit accommodations, to the variety of users trying to survive on the streets.
In stark contrast to her outward calm, and just as unsettling, is Audrey's private anguish. Angry with no outlet, she at first keeps her rage bottled up. But as she and her children slowly embrace Jerry and his struggles, they all begin to heal. And together, ever so slowly, they help one another emerge from their respective haze: his chemical, theirs emotional.
Alison Lohman, as a fellow recovering druggie, is brilliant. Selfless, forgiving and desperate for "clean" companionship, she is consistently there for Jerry; first as inspiration, then as his savior, and finally, his friend.
The welcome ray of light in this cloudy realm is the always cheery neighbor Howard (a wonderful John Carroll Lynch), who goes above and beyond supportive, almost to the point of unreal. A delight in every scene in which he appears, the humble and empathetic Howard manages to take the edge off the otherwise extra thick tension, and offers some much needed comic relief.
In her first full-length American feature, Danish director Susanne Bier takes a somewhat implausible, yet nonetheless engaging tragedy and elevates it to a parable on grief, coping and the dangers of rushing to judgment. To balance the grim realities of widowhood and street life, we're offered unbearably cute kids (the extremely talented Micah Berry and Alexis Llewellyn) or flashbacks from an achingly content marriage. Despite a few overly saccharine moments, her raw but realistic tear-jerker neatly showcases the intensity of sudden death and the myriad ways we deal with (or attempt to avoid) it.
But in order to deal, an excruciatingly fragile Audrey must project strength; irrevocably broken, she must first help mend those around her. She feels totally inconsolable, her plight rendered only slightly less terrifying by friends or material comforts.
Forced to face a depressing new reality, Audrey becomes refreshingly honest and straightforward. She reaches out to Jerry, hoping to distract herself and do what Steve might've wanted. And right along with her, we discover the value of "things" and the true meaning of "lost."