You can't manufacture honest sentiment.... So, I'd have to call the movie a noble miss.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

Note: In the following joint Blu-ray review both John and Dean provide their opinions of the film, with John also writing up the Video, Audio, Extras, and Parting Shots.

The Film According to John:
I noticed a year or so ago when I read Dean's DVD review of "Things We Lost in the Fire" that he asked why one of its stars, Benicio Del Toro, didn't get at least an Academy Award nomination for his performance. I hadn't seen the film at the time, but now I can hazard a guess. Like me, probably nobody who votes on the Oscars saw the film. Its box-office gross was abysmally small.

So, the question might be, Why didn't people go to see it? Here, I would hazard another guess: Moviegoers aren't really keen on watching seriously heavy, overly dramatic slice-of-life films, no matter who's starring in them, and this one's got not only Del Toro but Halle Berry and David Duchovny. I'm not saying it's fair; but it's not what turns audiences on.

Murder, death, and drug addiction. And this movie introduces these elements in the first five minutes! You want to talk about depressing? Yet it isn't just the obvious outward conflicts that weigh one down; it's the movie's unlikely string of subsequent events. For a film that professes with its every breath to be sincere, honest, and realistic, 2007's "Things We Lost in the Fire" makes as much sense as a salted-peanut stand in Death Valley.

Think about it: A successful architectural designer lives with his beautiful wife and two beautiful children in the Seattle suburbs. One night walking home from a nearby store, he sees another man beating up a woman. He intervenes, and the second man pulls out a gun and kills him and then himself. Possible? Yes. Likely? No. At the first man's funeral we meet his best friend, a former lawyer turned jobless heroin addict, whom the wife has always hated. Possible? Yes. Likely? No. Within days of the funeral, the grieving widow invites the drug-addict friend to live with her and the children in a spare room, even though she professes to hate him and even though he's a practicing drug addict. Possible? Yes. Likely? No. Within a few weeks, the wife asks the addict to come to bed with her, not for sex but to comfort her and help her sleep, as her husband used to do. Possible? Yes. Likely, no. Then, also within weeks, the two children grow to love the addict, the neighbor down the street wants to be his buddy and offers him a job, and a young woman in the addict's support group grows attached to him because he leaves the meetings early, not wanting to stay for the prayer. Possible? Yes. Likely? No.

It's not that any one thing in the movie is unbelievable; it's the accumulation of questionable circumstances that begins to grate on one's intellect and undermine the story's credibility.

Yet the acting is so good, one can forgive some of the film's shortcomings. Benicio Del Toro is superb as the drug-addled Jerry Sunborne. We feel the anguish in his face and voice, recognizing he is an inherently kind and gentle man gone wrong. We never find out what did go wrong with him, however, why he turned to drugs, which weakens his standing with the audience a bit. Still, Del Toro reminds us why he won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in "Traffic." Halle Berry is also good as the widow, demonstrating why she won an Oscar for Best Actress in "Monster's Ball" years before, while also making us wonder why she hasn't flexed her acting chops more often since. In brief flashback appearances David Duchovny is pleasant as the husband. And most affecting of all are Alexis Llewellyn and Micah Berry as the two children, who manage to seem like real kids and not Hollywood youngsters pretending to be kids. Alison Lohman is agreeable as Jerry's fellow addict. And John Carroll Lynch plays the neighbor, and he, too, does his bestp; but films like "Zodiac" and "Gothika" have sort of typecast him for audiences as a dubious character.

There is no question that Danish director Suzanne Bier, making her first English-language film, wanted to do something sensitive and meaningful. I'm sure she and screenwriter Allan Loeb tried to create an earnest human drama, showing how fragile human relationships can be and how much we need one another for support, how much the characters in the story need to start new lives and need others to help them: the widow, the drug addict, the children, even the neighbor and the fellow addict. Unfortunately, the filmmakers subvert their aims by piling on too much embellishment, using too many quiet, lingering close-ups and slow-motion shots, and keeping the pace too often at a glacial standstill.

You can't manufacture honest sentiment, which is what "Things We Lost in the Fire" looks as though it's doing. Sympathy and empathy have to flow from genuine human experience, particularly shared human emotions. Even the movie's title, based on an occurrence mentioned in the story but clearly intended metaphorically, seems contrived. So, I'd have to call the movie a noble miss.

John's film rating: 5/10

The Film According to Dean:
Snubbed. Benicio Del Toro was completely snubbed by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for the 2007 Academy Awards. His performance should have been an odds-on favorite to take home the coveted Oscar for Best Actor, but the incredibly talented actor didn't receive as much as a nomination from the Academy. I've seen all of the performances that contained Best Actor nominated performances, and don't feel that any of them came close to the work done by Del Toro in portraying a caring man saddled with a heavy burden of drug addiction and the loss of his best friend; the only man who cared much of anything for him. This was the finest performance of the year and I'm just amazed that Benicio Del Toro was snubbed.

"Things We Lost in the Fire" is the story of Audrey Burke (Halle Berry) who loses her caring husband Brian (David Duchovney) when he is killed trying to help a woman who is being beaten by her husband. Audrey is left alone to raise her children Harper (Alexis Llewellyn) and Dory (Micah Berry). She is in shock at the sudden death of her husband and finds herself turning to a person she has loathed for years; Jerry Sunborne (Benicio Del Toro), a former lawyer who has been Brian's best friend since the second grade, but has become a drug addict with no job or apparent future. Audrey nearly forgot to contact Jerry about Brian's death, but sent her brother Neal (Omar Benson Miller) to fetch Jerry on the day of the funeral.

Jerry is given a place to stay by Audrey in a spare room in the garage. He had been staying at a drug rehab center and was doing odd chores to earn his stay, but Audrey makes him a better offer and Jerry finds himself wondering why Audrey has allowed him to stay on the property of his best friend. During his stay at the Burke household, Jerry becomes a friend and fatherly figure to ten year old daughter Harper and six year old son Dory. Audrey finds some solace to her pain in companionship with Jerry and goes as far as having him hold her so she can fall asleep. He also befriends Brian's friend Howard Glassman (John Carroll Lynch) and Howard shows interest in helping Jerry become a better man by offering up exercise and a vocation.

The new world provided to Jerry is fragile as Audrey is uneasy about Jerry's past and his closeness to her two children. Jerry is able to help Dory get over his fear of putting his head under water and knows secrets about the children that Brian had shared with him, but never revealed to his wife. She is quick to lose her temper towards Jerry and throws him out of the garage after one incident regarding Harper. With this new lifestyle being something cherished by Jerry, he quickly falls back to his heroin addiction and Audrey realizes her folly and has Neal and one of Jerry's fellow Narcotics Anonymous attendees, Kelly (Alison Lohman), help Jerry become clean again and solidify his position as a dear and close friend of the Burke family.

"Things We Lost in the Fire" is an emotionally charged film that succeeds mainly because of the strength of its two primary actors, Del Toro and Berry. I have long admired Del Toro's acting abilities and this film allows his expressive eyes and ability to convey emotion to command a film like few actors in Hollywood can do today. Brad Pitt is about the only other actor I can think of who can show the amount of emotion in his eyes that Del Toro does, and the extreme close ups utilized by director Susanne Bier put Del Toro's expressive eyes front and center. Both actors have won Academy Awards for past performances, and "Things We Lost in the Fire" certainly benefits from their involvement. Berry is very strong as a woman in shock who must remain strong after the loss of her husband, and while she isn't as impressive as she was in "Monster's Ball," Berry is still one of today's best actresses.

The story by Allan Loeb feels emotionally contrived at times. "Things We Lost in the Fire" is a film about emotional redemption and the need to be loved and supported by others. It is a film that shows the more depressing occurrences in life and spends a considerable amount of time showing a man riddled with drug dependency going through pure hell as he relapses. The actors bring honesty to these emotions, but Loeb's story continually forces emotional moments towards the audience in a manner that has the audience feeling manipulated. It is one thing to sit through a film with its emotional downs, but "Things We Lost in the Fire" is a film with very few 'ups' that help counterbalance the depression, and Loeb tries too hard to try and force the audience into feeling sadness over two characters in unfortunate situations.

It's not a bad story, but it tries too hard to make us feel depressed over what occurs on-screen instead of helping us find our own emotional response to the story.

Dean's film rating: 7/10

Using a dual-layer BD50 and an MPEG-4/AVC encode, Paramount engineers do their part to transfer the film to high-definition Blu-ray looking as much as possible as it probably did in theaters. They get a good, bright picture in the process, although it tends to lose some detail in darker areas, which tend to blur a bit. Object delineation is good, though not exceptional, with close-ups (and there are plenty of them) faring best. While the colors show up strongly and deeply, the picture is more than a touch glossy at times, and that extra sheen can either slightly enhance or slightly degrade the overall video quality.

It pleased me that Paramount chose to use a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 audio codec to reproduce the sound, even though the sound is mostly dialogue that might not benefit all that much from the lossless format. There is very little frequency range, dynamic response, or surround information here, and not even much of a front-channel stereo spread. An occasional burst of pop music, heard by one of the movie's characters over earphones, is about the extent of the soundtrack's ambitions.

There's not a lot in the way of extras on the disc. The two main things are a twenty-minute featurette, "A Discussion about Things We Lost in the Fire," where director Bier, screenwriter Loeb, and others talk about what the film means to them and why they made it; and seven deleted scenes totaling about nine minutes. Both of these items come in standard definition.

The other bonuses include seventeen scene selections; bookmarks; a theatrical trailer in high def; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.

Parting Shots:
I wish I had liked "Things We Lost in the Fire" as much as Dean did, but I can understand why he enjoyed it. As he said, the acting really is superlative, and for me it surpassed the story line and characters involved. The cast brings a undoubted sense of peril, confusion, and pathos to their roles. Now, if only I could have accepted their predicaments as anything other than pure melodrama, I might have liked the movie more, too.


Film Value