Things We Lost in the Fire
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Jerry and Brian wouldn't have referred to each other like that, but that's what they were: best friends, forever. They grew up together; they knew each other like they knew their own skin. That didn't change when Brian got married to a beautiful woman named Audrey and had two children. And it didn't change when Jerry got hooked on heroin and watched his life slide to the edge of oblivion. Brian still made it a point to celebrate Jerry's birthday with him every year. He'd take Jerry out for dinner, buy him some groceries, and they'd tell some old stories, share some new ones. Never mind that Jerry kept creeping closer and closer to the abyss. Never mind that every visit sparked a fight with Audrey, who couldn't understand why Brian didn't cut ties with this helpless, hopeless time bomb.
And then he dies. Not Jerry, but Brian—killed while picking up ice cream. At the wake, Jerry and Audrey greet each other, the intimacy of grief forced upon them.
"I hated you," Audrey tells him, a desperate smile on her face. "I hated you for so many years, Jerry."
Maybe she still does. But she also sees in Jerry a piece of her husband, so she invites him to stay with her and her two daughters. And so begins a painful, sometimes backward path to recovery—Jerry struggling to conquer years of drug abuse, Audrey coming to terms with Brian's death.
Brian dies a hero's death. While getting the ice cream, he sees a man kicking his wife. He runs to help her and forces the guy to back off. But as Brian calls police, the man pulls out a gun and shoots him.
But Brian was a good guy in life, too. Against Audrey's better judgment, he refuses to cut ties with his troubled friend, Jerry. We never see Brian moralize or try to help Jerry out of his drug use—perhaps he has before and has just given up. Nevertheless, Brian remains a lifeline, Jerry's only link to a safer, more normal world.
Ironically, Brian's death may be the catalyst that will save Jerry's life. After the funeral, Jerry quits using. And after a relapse, he claws his way back up on the wagon and, when Audrey finds him helping out at a methadone clinic, he's been clean for 16 days.
He stays clean once he moves in and becomes a surrogate father for Audrey's hurting family. He plays basketball with Brian's daughter and cajoles Brian's son to dip his head underwater—something Brian was never able to get him to do at the swimming pool. He's remarkably honest about his drug history and never makes excuses for it. When Audrey lashes out at Jerry, he takes it with stoic dignity.
[Spoiler Warning] Audrey struggles mightily to deal with Brian's death, and she makes her share of mistakes (as does Jerry). But her strength shines through when Jerry relapses: Audrey rescues him, almost comatose, from the roughest and druggiest of neighborhoods, practically carrying Jerry to her car. Once home, she drafts her huge brother to babysit Jerry while he goes through withdrawal symptoms. She's also a loving, caring mother who, unfortunately, suppresses her own grief in order to help her children through theirs.
During one of his darkest moments, Jerry rummages through Audrey's belongings, looking for something to pawn in order to buy drugs. He finds a box of silverware—but Audrey's daughter catches him in the act and knows exactly what he's doing.
"Don't steal those," she tells him. "Put them back. It's not good."
"OK!" Jerry whispers, like a petulant 6-year-old. And he does.
"Every time a user dies a user gets clean because of it," a recovering addict tells Audrey. Brian was not a user, but in this film's ethos, Brian died so that Jerry—the most pitiful of sinners—might live. Though this is not a film that hinges on Christian belief, it's filled to the rafters with sin, sacrifice and redemption.
Spiritual touchstones are dropped throughout the movie, but sparingly. Jerry wears a cross around his neck. Yet, in his Narcotics Anonymous meetings, he always leaves before the closing prayer.
"You should stay for the Serenity Prayer," says another recovering addict, adding that to not do so is disrespectful.
"To what?" Jerry asks.
The girl stutters for a minute, and then answers, "To your recovery." She also wears a cross-like necklace around her neck, though hers is upside down. This doesn't appear to be a sign she's a Satanist—there are no other indications she is. Rather, it may harken to a recurring theme in the film where, during critical interactions with Brian's kids, he looks at them upside down. My guess is that one of the film's messages is sometimes things must be turned topsy-turvy in order for us to see them the way they really are.
Jerry compares the first time someone uses heroin to "the kiss of God."
Brian and Audrey have an erotic encounter in a shed on their property, where they're shown petting and locking lips. The camera zeros in on what Brian's hands are doing over and under Audrey's jeans.
The two also have a bedtime ritual in which Audrey throws her leg over Brian and Brian kneads her ear as she falls asleep. This ritual was so critical to Audrey's good rest that, after a few sleepless nights, she asks Jerry to lie down with her and knead her earlobe like Brian did. "Faster," Audrey instructs. "Harder."
[Spoiler Warning] Nothing sexual happens during that encounter, but the two are gradually drawn together. Audrey walks into Jerry's suite as he's taking a shower (we see him from the waist up) and she comes on to him. "I want to escape," she says, just as Jerry tells her how he escaped the world through heroin. For her, Jerry is that escape—from responsibility, from crushing cares—even though she knows it'd be wrong. The two almost kiss, but Jerry stops before their lips touch, and he mumbles an apology and leaves.
One of the children tells Jerry that he should marry Audrey. Jerry says that will never happen, because "that would make it so my best friend never existed." But he's attracted to Audrey, too. At one point he has an erotic dream about her: It consists of expanses of (presumably) Audrey's curved, dark skin.
Audrey also wears a bikini and other bits of revealing clothing now and then. And there are frank discussions and jokes about sex and infidelity.
Brian's death is the only violent scene of note in the film, and even that is not particularly graphic. We see the killer from behind as he kicks his wife, but we aren't asked to watch the blows land. Brian pulls the man away and forces him to count to 10. As Brian calls 911, he leans over and touches the woman's bruised and bloodied face, brushing away her hair. Her swollen eye opens and looks at her husband, who in a fit of guilt or jealousy or both, pulls the gun. We later see, at a distance, three bodies lying in the grass as police officers hover.
Later, Audrey beats Jerry's chest in grief.
Crude or Profane Language
Characters say the f-word more than 15 times, most often using the word as an actual reference to sex. The s-word comes into play another four or five times, with a couple of other swears ("d--n," "h---") popping up sporadically. Jesus' name is abused once.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Jerry is an addict, and we see him using drugs. We also see the horrific toll they take on him.
We first lay eyes on Jerry in his horrid-looking apartment, hiding the spoon he uses to heat drugs in an old newspaper. He retrieves a drug stash from underneath his bathroom sink. And he heats it, inhaling fumes through a tube.
[Spoiler Warning] After Audrey kicks him out of her house, Jerry relapses. The audience sees someone, presumably Jerry, sticking a needle into his arm. Audrey then searches for and finds Jerry, stoned, slumped in the shell of an old concrete building. She drives him home and gives him a candy bar to eat before moviegoers witness the most graphic depiction of withdrawal I've ever seen onscreen.
Thus, it's easy for me to note here that drug use is never glamorized in What We Lost in the Fire. Jerry, when clean, is a noble figure. Jerry, when using, is a mess. But the power or attraction of drugs isn't downplayed either.
Jerry has other vices. The first time we see him, he's holding a beer in one hand and the spoon in the other. He smokes constantly, and at the wake he gives a cigarette to another mourner, who smokes with him.
Other Negative Elements
Audrey's 10-year-old daughter ditches school to watch black-and-white movies like she and her dad used to do.
Audrey's neighbors, a husband and wife, don't get along well. The wife continually snipes at her husband, and the husband confesses to Jerry that he hates her. He eventually decides to leave her—an action that, as far as the film's concerned, is a good thing. (In the end, he admits he's lonely and is going back to her.)
Going into this film, I was prepared to write the following: "Things We Lost in the Fire is a thought-provoking film that is marred by too much profanity, sex and drug abuse. The f-words certainly aren't needed. If only the director hadn't put them in ..."
But after watching, I was, in a curious—slightly perverse—sense, glad for the curse words—unnecessary though they undoubtedly are. Why? Because they ensured an R rating, which is much deserved in this case. Even without the sex, even without the swearing, this film is not for children.
There's a lot to chew on here—enough to make an old English major and movie wonk like me go a little crazy. It's fascinating how the director zooms in again and again on the characters' eyes—not as objects of beauty, but as twitchy, bloodshot windows to the soul. It's telling how, time after time, one person's failings allow another to be a hero—and how quickly those roles can be reversed. We sometimes see characters rejected, abused and even killed because, simply, they did the right thing. We can be mean and petty creatures, and, if we're truthful, there are times when nothing makes us angrier than someone else being kind and compassionate—in other words, the type of person we know we should be.
In Brian, in Jerry, in Audrey, we see the people we too often are and the people we'd like to be. We see weakness and strength, ugliness and beauty, sin and regeneration.
Things We Lost in the Fire opens with Brian telling his son, Dori, that fluorescent means "lit from within."
"So am I fluorescent?" he asks his father. "Yeah, Dori, you are," Brian answers.
This is a film that honors that light from within, even when it's covered with grime and filth. (And it often is.) That light still glows despite our transgressions, our pettiness, even our death. It's too bad that, sometimes, the world needs to be turned upside down for us to remember that.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Halle Berry as Audrey Burke; Benicio Del Toro as Jerry Sunborne; David Duchovny as Brian Burke
Susanne Bier ( )