I've always thought of Benicio del Toro as looking like a bit of a sad sack. I sort of dismissed him as a disheveled rebel wannabe who needed to get some sleep already. Recently, after re-watching his brilliant turn as Javier Rodriquez in 2000's Traffic and his equally mesmerizing performance as Jerry Sunborne in 2007's Things We Lost in the Fire, I was struck by his overpowering screen presence and obvious versatility as an actor.
Del Toro is able to convey more thoughts and emotions through his eyes than many actors can project through pages of dialogue. You only have to look at his eyes in this film to see the heavy strain his character is under, that of a drug-addicted man who has just lost the one person in the world who never gave up on him.
Things We Lost in the Fire is the story of Audrey Burke (Halle Barry) who loses her husband Brian (David Duchovny) when he is killed trying to help a woman who is being beaten by her husband. Duchovny is surprisingly affecting in his brief role as a caring husband and father who, despite his wife's misgivings, maintains a relationship with his childhood friend Jerry Sunborne (Benicio del Toro). Sunborne, once a successful lawyer, is addicted to heroin.
Now with the sudden death of her husband, Audrey is forced to reassess her life. Left alone to raise her two children, Harper (Alexis Llewellyn) and Dory (Micah Berry), she finds herself turning to the person who knew her husband the best — Jerry Sunborne. Audrey allows Jerry to stay in a spare room in the garage. Before long, he begins attending 12-step meetings and seeing some meaning in his life. Jerry also becomes a father figure to Audrey's children.
In time, Audrey become close enough to Jerry to have him hold her so she can go to sleep. He also becomes friends with Brian's timid friend and business associate Howard Glassman (John Caroll Lynch) who gets Jerry exercising and offers him a job in his office.
Though viewers are naturally supposed to feel empathy for Audrey Burke, she is not a sympathetic character. Quick to anger, Audrey blows a gasket when Jerry knows where Harper is when she doesn't show up for school one day, because Brian had told him in confidence that father and daughter sometimes played hooky to go to the movies. I thought Audrey's eyes were going to pop right out of her head when she shrieked at Jerry because he had gotten Dory to stick his head underwater, which Brian could never do. All of these could have been sympathetic moments, but Berry plays the role with such over the top intensity, at times it feels like she's using the Joan Crawford of Mommie Dearest fame as her dramatic acting model. Unlike the easy ebb and flow of emotional turmoil she displayed in 2001's Monster's Ball, Berry seems to struggle with the wide range of emotions Audrey is forced to deal with.
After the water incident with Dory, Audrey asks Jerry to leave the house. Predictably this sends him on a heroin binge. Audrey quickly realizes her mistake and has her brother Neal (Omar Benson Miller) and one of Jerry´s fellow Narcotics Anonymous attendees Kelly (Alison Lohman) help Jerry become clean again and cement his position as a close friend of the Burke family.
Director Susanne Bier has made the eyes of del Toro and Berry the overwhelming focus of Things We Lost in the Fire. Bier uses close-up after close-up to reveal emotions. While not as effective for Berry, del Toro's amazingly expressive eyes add to the agony of the scenes in which he is attempting to come off heroin.
While the screenplay by Allan Loeb is an admirable look at loss and the difficulties of drug abuse, the story almost seems a little too flawless at times. Audrey's husband has died tragically, but he has left her with all the money she'll ever need and Jerry is able to safely come off heroin in a garage apartment with just the help of friends. In both of these instances, I doubt few would argue that most times real life doesn't play out that way. For me, some of the unrealistic settings occasionally made it hard to feel the intense level of emotion Bier and Loeb seemed to be looking for. However, despite the weaknesses of The Things We Lost in the Fire, Benicio del Toro delivers a performance worth watching.