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.
To be honest, I wasn't expecting to be wowed by the 1080p/AVC-encoded HD DVD release of 'Things We Lost in the Fire.' When I caught the film in theaters last year, its muted palette and grainy inconsistencies left me feel indifferent, but while the film's colors still adhere to the story's drab tone, Paramount's high-def spitshine has really improved the clarity and depth of the image, allowing it to surpass both the theatrical print and the standard DVD. Director Susanne Bier frequently relies on close-ups, and the transfer does a fantastic job showcasing every wrinkle and pore in Benicio Del Toro's face. In fact, detail is outstanding across the board -- aside from a few soft, filmic shots here and there, the transfer renders naturalistic skin, textured faces, and believable clothing. I didn't notice any intrusive artifacting, distracting source noise, or pesky edge enhancement. Aside from a moderate veneer of grain, the image is stable and clean.
My only complaint is that the film's contrast levels are over indulgent, crushing heavy shadows and overheating whites on a regular basis. Delineation is average and fleshtones often look as if they're being barraged with light. While the stark cinematography is certainly intentional, it makes for a less-than-attractive experience, one that heightens the tone of the film, but detracts from technical consistency and tonal authenticity. Even so, I can't imagine 'Things We Lost in the Fire' looking much better than it does here.
Unfortunately, the Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 surround track included with 'Things We Lost in the Fire' is utterly underwhelming and far too similar to the basic Dolby mix found on the standard DVD. The soundfield is as front heavy as they come -- the rear surrounds toss out a few ambient noises, but ultimately remain silent throughout the film. Even the interior scenes don't seem to benefit from the acoustic realism other quiet films have created on their surround tracks. The LFE channel is asleep at the wheel as well, piping up during a handful of occasions to deliver mediocre low-end support. Making matters worse, dialogue sometimes falls to inaudible levels that forced me to turn on the subtitle track to compensate. As it stands, I can't tell if the mix suffers from lazy design, an apathetic director, or a series of technical inadequacies.
I didn't expect 'Things We Lost in the Fire' to hit me in the face with sonic trickery -- I knew it was a quiet film going in. However, I've heard plenty of subtle tracks on other HD DVD releases that have managed to craft intricate soundscapes and develop a believable ambient presence. Sadly, this centralized, amateur hour mix is a complete disappointment and I wouldn't be surprised if people had a difficult time discerning the difference between the standard DVD audio and this high-def offering.
The HD DVD edition of 'Things We Lost in the Fire' includes all of the supplements from the standard DVD. Alas, it doesn't amount to much. Considering the distinct tone and direction of the film, I'm surprised there isn't a director's commentary to elaborate on the information presented in the main featurette.
In a week where Paramount released a phenomenal biopic like 'Into the Wild' on HD DVD, a plodding drama like 'Things We Lost in the Fire' doesn't have a lot to offer straggling format purists. It boasts a remarkable video transfer, but it can't recover from a lackluster Dolby Digital Plus audio track and an anemic collection of supplements. If you can find the HD DVD edition of 'Things We Lost in the Fire' in a rental store, plop down your four bucks and give it a rent. Otherwise, track down the standard DVD long before you consider blind buying this one.
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.