It's fun sometimes to see some marquee names tackle a project that runs contrary to their normal run of films. The occasional arthouse or independent film gives those actors a chance to take on something without the guise of so many people watching. They stretch out and feel as if they've got more liberty to do what they'd choose to, and the result usually winds up being surprising and a little refreshing, as in the case of Things We Lost in the Fire
The film is written by Allan Loeb, his first screenplay, and directed by Susanne Bier, who directed the Danish film Brothers. Things focuses on Audrey, played by Halle Berry (Monster's Ball), whose husband Brian (David Duchovny, The X-Files) was murdered trying to stop an abusive husband from beating on his wife. Audrey manages to tell Brian's friend Jerry (Benicio Del Toro, Traffic) about the murder, and Jerry doesn't seem to take it so well. For some perspective, Brian and Jerry were childhood friends, and Brian has helped care for Jerry to some degree. While Brian moved on to marry and have children with Audrey, Jerry's life as a lawyer crumbled down while a burgeoning drug habit took hold and nearly ruined his life. Despite these hard times for Jerry, Brian still held faith in him, would come and visit Jerry, to catch up and talk about his family. Brian knew of Jerry's using, but when they spoke they didn't really address it per se. If Jerry needed help cleaning up, Brian seemed to assume that Jerry would ask. Plus it seemed to give Jerry a brief fleeting sense of normalcy when Brian came over and chatted with him. Audrey is aware of how valuable that Brian was for Jerry, and invites Jerry to live with them. In that process, Jerry helps Audrey and her kids cope with their loss, while trying to strike the delicate balance of sobriety.
This eventually proves to be problematic for Audrey. Jerry gets on his feet with the help of Brian's friend Howard (John Carroll Lynch, Zodiac) to the point where he becomes an almost independent, functioning member of society again with a new job. Jerry helps Audrey's kids in various ways around the house, including helping her youngest son overcome a fear of swimming. These things, as Audrey explains later, should have been for Brian, and not for her. Audrey views Jerry's staying with them a little more functional than it should be, and any small special moment should have been rightly given to Brian. She starts to resent him for it, to the point where she starts to feel cold and distant from Jerry, and wishes that he would leave. In a sense though, Loeb manages to help show Jerry as a lens for how Brian's death has affected both friends and family. After providing some health and assistance, Audrey almost doesn't realize that Jerry isn't going to be closure for Brian's death, and when she doesn't need Jerry anymore, he leaves and eventually goes back to some of the old habits which destroyed his life before. However this time, you could almost sense that there might not be any turning back for him because it's as if he felt value in his life again for the first time in awhile, and he wasn't going to get it back.
Bier has dealt with a huge loss from her film's protagonist rather adroitly before, and with Del Toro and Berry, she gets some excellent tools to work with. Berry handles both the loss and discovered self-reliance parts of Audrey very well. Del Toro, while being no stranger to "grimy" performances previously, those roles have helped make Jerry into a guy you really want to pull for. Bier manages to keep most of the action shot via handheld camera to keep things as natural looking as possible, and while you see Berry, Del Toro and Duchovny on screen, the roles they play could be done by your friend, or neighbor or family member, in terms of how authentic they feel. It makes for a fascinating film and interesting character study to boot.
Things We Lost in the Fire comes to Blu-ray with the same 2.40:1 1080p presentation that the HD DVD had. It uses the AVC MPEG-4 codec, and from viewing the standard def copy a few months ago, what I liked about the Blu-ray presentation is just how sharp the blacks looked. They present an excellent contrast to the other images on the screen. Image detail is strong but a little inconsistent, as is the background detail. The background exteriors do have a slight multidimensional feel to them. With the help of longtime Clint Eastwood cinematographer Tom Stern, Bier keeps the film flat without little in the way of processing or color adjusting as you'd see in Eastwood films, and film grain is present without being obtrusive. This looks pretty good in high definition.
A Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack is included, which is an upgrade from the standard definition's Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack and the HD DVD's Dolby Digital-Plus track. Based on comparing the other two presentations, the TrueHD track is the best option, but it's hard to overly rave about this new sound option because the source material is so dormant. Much of the dialogue comes in whispered or hushed tones, surround use is minimal (though I kind of liked the pool scenes), and the surround experience doesn't really get a chance to stand out. The songs playing through Jerry's headphones sound crisp and possess good dynamic range, but overall there isn't too much to rave about here.
Not too much, though there is "A Discussion About Things We Lost in the Fire" which is a separation from other more traditional making of featurettes which you normally see. Bier and other members of the cast and crew talk about what drew them to Loeb's script, while Bier additionally recalling her casting choices for the roles. If for nothing else, it's fun to listen to her pronunciation of Berry's first name. Bier and the crew also talk about Del Toro's preparation for tackling Jerry and also talk about some of the character dynamics. In terms of its approach it's an interesting piece. Next up are seven deleted scenes, many of which illustrate Jerry's addiction and road to recovery, cramming on a mortgage exam with a neighbor, and telling Audrey what he really thought of a piece of distressed wood. The trailer and some previews complete the disc.
All in all, Things We Lost in the Fire certainly makes for different storytelling. Technically, the disc is presented as good as it will probably be, and the TrueHD track seems to clinch a buy for those who liked the film and have been waiting long enough. The performances are creative and a welcome change of pace from the norm, and Bier contributes a solid effort in her American debut. I'd strongly recommend renting the disc to see a little different film from two very familiar acting names.