When her husband Brian (David Duchovny) dies defending an abused woman from her thug spouse, Audrey (Halle Berry) is left in shambles, unable to process the death and grieve properly with their two children. Out of desperation, she turns to Brian's best friend Jerry (Benicio Del Toro), a recently reformed drug addict, for help. Moving into Audrey's house, Jerry is confronted with Brian's legacy of good deeds and kindness, trying to be of use to his new family while fighting his urge to seek refuge from overwhelming pain in the comfort of narcotics.
Danish director Susanne Bier marks her American film debut with "Fire," and she's lost nothing in the translation. After feeling around the corners of guilt with "Open Hearts," the near-masterpiece "Brothers," and "After the Wedding," "Fire" doesn't muck around with Bier's curiosities, only giving them an audience-widening chance to grow. Her commitment to emotional authenticity is staggering, even more so when you figure she's working with high-maintenance movie stars and studio suits who automatically recoil at the idea of characters expressing themselves from the depths of their souls. In that respect, "Fire" is something of a multiplex miracle.
There's a profusion of beauty to be found in "Fire," from the thin-ice movement of the story to the way Bier keeps her actors in a state of constant uncertainty, which raises the performances of Berry and Del Toro as they figure out a way to convey the poison of personal loss without falling off melodramatic cliffs. For Berry, this restraint is a necessity, since she's terrible embodying blistering hostility. "Fire" has piercing moments of wailing catharsis, but she's kept in check by Bier, who also presents Del Toro's general itchiness in measured amounts, forcing the actor to find other inventive means to expose Jerry's anguish and newly suburbanized bewilderment.
The performances are gorgeous, exposing the raw emotional tearing of death through expressions, not dialogue, and leaving easy answers of communication behind as Audrey and Jerry battle awkwardly back and forth, abstractly processing Brian's legacy and the crater left behind by his murder. Bier loves her actors, but her preoccupation with the comfort of marriage underscores the tragedy with a more inspired level of sophistication.
At times, "Fire" is a flat-out sensory experience, with Bier tuning into the simple tokens of affection to evoke a potent sense of absence and recovery. It's little things, such as Audrey's desire to have her ears rubbed to fall asleep or tracing the lines of life in Jerry's face, that take on a greater significance, revealing a film of atypical symbiosis with the currents of desire and reassurance.
"Things We Lost in the Fire" doesn't go for the throat with moments of gut-wrenching misery. Instead, the picture is a dreamlike evocation of tentative interaction and community support, presented in a nonlinear way to nurture audience participation instead of beating the viewer in the face with a cry stick. It's an exquisite film of mammoth dramatic reach and sympathy, and it presents Susanne Bier as one of the most observant, patient filmmakers working today.