Dramas come in two flavors: associative and manipulative. Associative dramas allow any viewer to bring their personal experiences into the theater and incorporate their own emotions into the story. On the opposite end of the spectrum are manipulative dramas, which live and die on the shoulders of their director's agenda. These films are designed from the ground up to elicit specific emotions, convey particular beliefs, and convert the masses. Cry on cue! Feel sympathy! Despise her! Endear yourself to him! From the moment I saw the trailer for 'Things We Lost in the Fire,' I knew it would either be a compelling character study that said something about the human condition or a cinematic rails-shooter out to yank my heart strings.
When Audrey Burke (Halle Berry) answers a late night knock at her door, she comes face to face with the news that her husband Brian (David Duchovny) has been shot and killed. Struggling to piece together her life and still function as a mother to her two children, Audrey takes solace in the company of Jerry (Benicio Del Toro), a heroin addict Brian had been helping overcome his addiction. Audrey invites Jerry into her life and he seems to thrive -- he grows close to her children, helps her deal with crushing grief, and lends a helping hand where it's needed. But every day introduces a new internal battle for Jerry as he has to decide if resisting his old lifestyle is worth so much pain.
'Things We Lost in the Fire' has a lot of potential. Benicio Del Toro is magnificent as Jerry, injecting layer upon layer of nuanced emotion into his performance. He doesn't just play an addict, he inhabits an addict; taking on the physical yearning, deep seeded depression, and volatile desperation that haunts those who have recently abused heroin. I'll also give the film a lot of credit for avoiding a stereotypical third-act love story between Jerry and Audrey. Theirs is a platonic relationship, in which each person is merely searching for companionship while dealing with their struggles. Both characters are plagued by memories of their recent pasts, but neither crosses the line into romance or lust. By that token, 'Things We Lost in the Fire' registers as a real story about real people while dodging the clichés of its genre brethren -- there is no bright and happy ending, there is no replacement for such great loss, there are no quick fixes for broken hearts.
Alas, director Susanne Bier has a blatant agenda in store for her viewers. She doesn't simply tug at heart strings, she wraps her fists around 'em and drags the entire audience around like a pack of lost puppies. Close-ups of Jerry let us know when we're supposed to connect with his pain, closer close-ups of Audrey let us know that she feels vulnerable, and skewed shots of the children let us know that the Burke family is in danger of being consumed by its own grief. Every scene leads succinctly to the next, but the results feel scripted and plotted to extract very specific emotional responses. As such, people inclined to feel Bier's intended emotions will probably enjoy 'Things We Lost in the Fire' quite a bit, while those who experience different feelings from the director's pre-programmed responses (like me) will encounter a palpable disconnect from the characters and the story.
My wife really responded to 'Things We Lost in the Fire' -- so much so that she was more than a little perturbed with me when I expressed my disappointment. It seems she tapped into Bier's intentions and, as a result, connected with the film and its characters. Personally, I enjoyed Del Toro's performance and the director's rejection of genre schlock, but I couldn't get past the feeling that I was being readily manipulated for no apparent reason.
'Things We Lost in the Fire' first appeared on HD DVD, and now makes its Blu-ray debut, again sporting a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode (2.35:1). The film's visual style is muted but effective, and this transfer impressed me with the improvement it offers over the standard DVD.
Director Susanne Bier realizes that her film is all about the actors, and lays on the close-ups. What is most effective about this transfer are those moments, which reveal great detail, fine texture and smooth fleshtones. It's much better than the DVD, which looks muddled by comparison. Blacks are solid and contrast nicely modulated, so the image never loses its film-like appeal. Colors are relatively drab, if smooth. Shadow delineation is still a bit lacking, and some scenes come off as a tad soft. This is a spiffy encode, though, and thankfully free of edge enhancement or too much DNR. Nicely done.
The HD DVD of 'Things We Lost in the Fire' contained only a Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 Surround track, but this Blu-ray goes one better, containing a full-blown English Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Surround option (48kHz/16-bit). The upgrade is minimal, however, thanks largely to the restrained source material.
'Things We Lost in the Fire' is dialogue-driven and front-heavy. There is little excitement to the rear channels -- only some score bleed, minor discrete effects and moments of ambiance. I rarely even knew the surrounds were active. To be fair, they are a little strong in TrueHD than Dolby Digital-Plus, but not much. Dialogue is the star of the show, and it's expertly recorded and balanced. The fronts are fairly expansive, however, with excellent clarity across the entire frequency spectrum. Low bass doesn't have much to do, but it's perfectly adequate for the undemanding source. This Blu-ray does offer a step-up from the HD DVD and certainly the DVD, but not much.
'Things We Lost in the Fire' on Blu-ray contains the same supplements as the HD DVD and DVD editions. It's not a particularly hefty package -- a film this weighty deserved at least a commentary or better making-of featurettes.
'Things We Lost in the Fire' is ultimately a plodding exercise in domestic drama, but at least it is emboldened by some fine performances. This Blu-ray is pretty good, however, with nice video and even better audio than the HD DVD. The supplements still disappoint, however. I can't recommend 'Things We Lost in the Fire' as more than a rental, unless you are a particular fan of its actors.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.