My brother-in-law died this year. His name was David, and he wasn’t far in age from David Duchovny, whose character Brian is killed in Things We Lost in the Fire. Like Brian in the film, David’s death was both unexpected and sudden — there was no chance for goodbyes. Brian’s wife Audrey is played by Halle Berry, who is close in age to my wife Suzanne, David’s younger sister — who happens to have the same name as the film’s director, Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier.
I can’t really imagine what it would have been like to watch Things We Lost in the Fire last year, or the year before. It’s one thing to bury a grandparent or even a parent. An immediate family member of one’s own stage in life — one young to die — is very different.
Death puts life in perspective. Brian’s death is unrelated to the titular fire; the fire occurs years before the events depicted in the film. The point of the title is that the things that were lost in the fire — which to Audrey seemed at the time so important — were just things. “We still have each other,” she remembers Brian reminding her even then (I keep starting to type David). Yes, they did, until they didn’t. It’s strange how that happens.
Death is not a single traumatic event. Like a wedding, it is a thousand mundane tasks. There are distant family members, long-neglected friends, acquaintances and business partners to be notified; arrangements to be made, flowers to be ordered, a large gathering to be prepared for; and always all the minutiae of ordinary life to be attended to.
Email and voicemail continues to trickle in from people who haven’t heard, like an old college buddy of Steven’s who writes on the day of the funeral to chat about the Sonics’ new power forward. “What did he think of him?” Audrey asks her brother Neal (Omar Benson Miller), who sits at Steven’s computer. Good rebounder, Neal replies slowly, somewhat abashed by the triviality of the subject. Outside jump needed work. “Well then, write that,” Audrey decides.
Even when you think everyone has been told, there’s always someone else. Just before the funeral Audrey remembers someone who must be notified right away—someone with no phone, who must be told in person, and if he wishes brought to the funeral.
This would be Jerry (Benicio Del Toro), Steven’s friend since second grade. In the film’s somewhat nonlinear storytelling, we meet Jerry at the post-funeral gathering first, and only later see him first receiving the news of Steven’s death. Jerry drags nervously on a cigarette, and has another tucked behind his ear like a pencil. Only later is it clear the extent to which the cigarettes are less a vice than a lifeline.
“I hated you for so many years,” Audrey confesses to Jerry. “Now it seems so silly.”
The missing bit of information that connects all these dots is that Jerry, a one-time lawyer, is a heroin addict living on skid row. For years, Steven was Jerry’s only connection to his former life. To Audrey’s chagrin, Steven makes regular visits to Jerry’s skid row apartment, on one occasion tearing himself away from a very amorous moment with his wife to make a birthday visit to Jerry—which, when your wife looks like Halle Berry, says a lot about you as a friend.
Other than Steven, Jerry doesn’t want to see anyone until he’s clean—a goal to which he vaguely aspires, though there is currently no action in that direction, no progress toward that goal. Someday, perhaps, he will be ready. But life doesn’t always wait for you to decide to be ready. One day there is a knock at the door, and there is Audrey’s brother Neal telling Jerry that Steven is dead. He has to say it a number of times; people don’t always take in something of that magnitude when you say it once. Ready or not, Jerry must decide then and there which way to go.
For Audrey, Jerry is both a tenuous link to her missing husband and also the one wall between them. C. S. Lewis once noted that when a friend died, Lewis himself lost not only the friend but also something in other mutual friends that only the lost friend brought out. By reaching out to Jerry, Audrey seeks to connect with a part of her husband that she never entirely understood and was never reconciled to.
At the same time, Audrey can’t figure out whether she wants to be David for Jerry, or Jerry to be David for her. Certainly having Jerry around is good for the kids, six-year-old Dory (Micah Berry) and nine-year-old Harper (Alexis Llewellyn), whom Jerry knows by osmosis even before they meet. To the children as well as to Audrey, Jerry represents that part of Steven which he knew; but then comes a moment when Jerry fleetingly outdoes the departed, which is more than Audrey can bear.
The emotional territory is similar to Bier’s Danish-language film Brothers, in which a responsible family man is struck down, leaving a prodigal brother to do his best to step up to the plate and try to offer the hurting family whatever consolation and support he can. In both films, the black-sheep character is at least partly a surrogate for the fallen man, and the issue of emotional entanglements between the wife and the other man is at least raised, though fortunately Bier seems to be more interested in tense emotional ambiguities than in simplistic payoffs.
Both films also subject a male protagonist to a grueling trial by fire and failure before ultimately ending on a note of hope and redemption. The theme of decency, of doing the right thing, figures prominently in both films.
Things We Lost lacks some of the nuance of Brothers. Where the earlier film substantially cross-examined the family man’s uprightness, essentially reversing the brothers’ roles, in Things We Lost Steven is nearly flawless—a devoted husband and father, a loyal friend, an outstanding provider, even dying a hero’s death.
The dialogue is sometimes too explicit and on the nose, not trusting viewers to make connections on their own. In the opening lines, Steven uses the word “fluorescent,” which he explains to his six-year-old son Dory means “lit from within.” Not content with that, the screenplay has Dory ask brightly, “Am I fluorescent?” so that his daddy can assure him that, yes, he is.
Other details and moments are sharply observed: Dory’s nightmares, in which Daddy is the monster; Jerry late at night rifling through his meager belongings hoping against hope for a forgotten stash; a hilariously blunt exchange between Jerry and a neighbor over personal issues and furniture. Though not always faithful in small things, Things We Lost is faithful in much. The individual moments are sometimes off, but the large emotional resonances are right.
While there’s not a bad performance in the film, the clear standout is Del Toro, who transcends the tics and mannerisms of a junkie to play a fully felt character with a problem rather than simply playing the problem. Berry persuasively reconciles her character’s conflicting moods and reactions; Alison Lohman makes an impression in a supporting role as a member of Jerry’s NA group. Bier’s directorial style, which includes handheld cameras and intimate closeups sometimes framing a single eye, draws us into a film that is more about how grief, loss and relationships feel than what happens next.
Addendum: There is no character or actor named Steven in this film. After I posted this review, an editor pointed out to me, much to my astonishment, that after correctly identifying Duchovny’s characters name as Brian in the early paragraphs, from the fifth paragraph onward I consistently called him by my own first name — an entirely subconscious extension, apparently, of the other connections I noted between the film and my family’s personal tragedy. My friend suggested that perhaps the film had hit me harder than I thought; I’m inclined to accept that judgment. I leave the review as I wrote it, with the name slip in place.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.