Susanne Bier loves eyes. Call her retina close-ups heart-wrenching, call them empty metaphors, but either way, the gorgeous, often tearing eyes of Benicio Del Toro and Halle Berry nearly upstage the stars themselves in Bier's compassionate yet somewhat inert American debut.
Berry plays a recently widowed mother of two impossibly composed children (Alexis Llewellyn and Micah Berry). Her late husband (Duchovny), shot to death during a well-intentioned but capricious altercation, had been a lifelong friend of Del Toro, now a recovering heroin addict. Frustrated at her exclusion from--yet curious about — their male bonding, she recruits Del Toro to act as a sort of space-filler and gradually discovers an unlikely soulmate in him.
Both stars are uncharacteristically reigned-in and solemn, conveying their characters' mutual miseries without resorting to histrionics. The kids are innately cute but never become cloying. Alison Lohman, fast becoming one of Hollywood's most versatile actresses, is charming as Del Toro's sweet but impulsive AA buddy. And Duchovny, featured all too briefly, gives his finest performance yet as this lovable yet passive milquetoast.
Bier proves a wonderful framer, wisely beginning Berry's story at the mid-trauma stage of her grieving and only intermittently pulling back to show the quiet yet troubling flaws of her past marriage. The focus is on the present, on the coping period, and her film expertly evokes the hollow anticlimax that can follow a shocking loss. However, Bier is so cautious about withholding forced drama from the movie that, as a result, it loses its early fluidity. Impressively free of sentiment as it is, the film could ultimately use more explanation about Berry and Del Toro's newfound pact, and more depth, in particular, into why Del Toro and Duchovny were so brotherly to begin with.
In short, what Things We Lost In the Fire needs is more Duchovny, less eyes.
Opens October 19