There isn’t a lot of story in “Things We Lost in the Fire.” If you made a list of the plot’s major points, it would look too short. Instead, the movie finds its substance in the personalities and relationships of the characters — so much substance that a conventional “story” isn’t even needed.
It begins with the death of Brian Burke (David Duchovny), beloved husband of Audrey (Halle Berry) and father to a young son and daughter. The timeline is fractured, actually: Scenes of his death’s aftermath are intercut with scenes set weeks and days before it. We learn Brian had a lifelong best friend, Jerry (Benicio Del Toro), whom Audrey never liked and almost forgets to invite to the funeral. When he does arrive, he wears a shabby, ill-fitting suit, and he hoards cigarettes as if they were expensive commodities.
Brian and Audrey’s children, Harper (Alexis Llewellyn) and Dory (Micah Berry) have never heard of him. He tells them he was their dad’s best friend. “When?” Harper asks.
“When I was your age,” he says. “And last week.”
The reason he was never part of the family is that he’s a heroin addict, living in a bare apartment without a phone and struggling from day to day. Audrey always considered him an untrustworthy mooch, a drain on her husband’s goodwill. But Brian loved him, stood up for him, insisted on helping him out. Now Jerry is one of Audrey’s few connections to her late husband.
Brian and Audrey had a fire in their garage a little while back. Aware of Jerry’s handyman skills, Audrey asks if he’d like to move in and help fix it up again. He needs a better place to stay while he goes to Narcotics Anonymous, and Audrey needs … something. At times she wants Jerry to act as surrogate for Brian. At other times, she’s upset when he does things that would have been Brian’s domain, like helping Dory learn to swim.
What’s notable is that such inconsistent behavior, while irritating in principle, seems OK to us here. It’s not just that we understand logically why a young widow would have extremely complicated emotions — we also feel Audrey’s pain and uncertainty. On some level, we relate to her.
The story’s timeline becomes smooth again once Jerry movies in, with no more major flashbacks or jumping around. I like that Jerry can have such a calming influence not just on the people he’s with, but even on the movie itself. His drug addiction notwithstanding, he’s a charismatic, casual guy, easy to like and fun to be with. He is refreshingly unencumbered by society’s usual restrictions on what people should say in polite company. Audrey’s neighbor, Howard (John Carroll Lynch), takes an immediate shine to him, even offering to help him get a job in the mortgage business. Dory and Harper bond with him as well, Dory because of the swimming lessons and Harper because she shares his vegetarianism.
The movie, directed by Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier (“After the Wedding”) from a screenplay by Allan Loeb, is a welcome return for its stars. Benicio Del Toro hasn’t been in a movie since 2005’s “Sin City,” and Halle Berry hasn’t done anything worthwhile since winning an Academy Award almost six years ago. Both actors remind us of their vitality here. A couple more meaty, mature performances like this and people might stop calling for Berry to return her Oscar.
While the story falls prey to a couple of developments so predictable they might be inevitable — has any movie character trying to kick an addiction NOT had a relapse at about the 70-minute mark? — I like that it mostly doesn’t go the way you think it will. The obvious paths wouldn’t be plausible. “Things We Lost” chooses the more satisfying option of letting the characters grow and develop naturally.
B (1 hr., 59 min.; )