Del Toro, Berry smolder in 'Fire'

This first American work by Danish Director Susanne Bier, bravely opens with scenes of sorrow—soliciting audience compassion for an unexplained grief. But that’s where the real story starts, because oddly enough, it takes Brian Burke’s (David Duchovny) untimely death to bring people alive.

Brian was Audrey’s (Halle Berry) life. The rhythm of their trust and love, the easy banter on heavy subjects, suggested a very rare marriage.

She lived a carefree existence, prosperous and without material want. A pretty woman, surrounded by two well-manner children, she also enjoyed the liberty of working on art projects. She found herself celebrated without accomplishment.

The beauty of Berry’s performance lies in bringing depth to a character who initially can’t find it in herself.

Her late marriage’s lone source of irritation was Brian’s ongoing relationship with Jerry Sunborne (Benicio Del Toro), his longtime friend turned junkie. On Jerry’s birthday the husband and father drives over to his buddy’s pad and rustles him up from a mattress on the floor that serves as bed, couch and kitchen table.

From the outside they couldn’t be more different–one prosperous with bright prospects, the other’s horizons extending no further than the next fix. But their longtime connection refused to wane.

Brian kept his friend updated on the family; their likes and dislikes, hopes and fears. The two men shared something special.

Audrey demeaned the relationship as one-sided if not a lost cause. Ironically, it was those naïve characteristics that made Brian a successful husband and father—an idealist long on love and short on demands.

Duchovny, best known for his role in the X-files, fumbles the role of the nimble husband and father, a character written with a mischievous spirit and a tendency for easy banter. He’s not bad, he’s just not the Brian suggested by the dialogue he delivers.

From the funeral, the narrative toggles us back and forth in time to discover what was one as we watch Audrey slowly discover what can never be again. This non-linear editing device, sometimes used with weaker scripts to suggest complexity, applied here brings clarity. The grace with which these scenes unfold, proves critical to the movie, and stands as a tribute to both the directing and cutting.

Nearly forgotten in the unexpected crisis is Jerry, who has no knowledge of Brian’s fall from an act of random violence. An unpleasant afterthought, they dig him up at the last minute to join in the last goodbye.

This somewhat rumpled and bedraggled soul expects little from life and suffers few illusions. He carries a touch of groundedness that the bereaved family and their affluent neighbors sense, but cannot comprehend. From beyond their gates of privilege, he brings something they want, but proves harder to import that a Cuban cigar.

Audrey, feeling an emptiness that was always there, that Brian kept covered through distraction and affection, feels an innate sense of panic. The widow, riding the swift and wild rapids of despair, hearing the roar of the upcoming waterfall from which there will be no return, reaches out from where the rational mind has no sovereignty, and grabs.

Jerry proves to be the hanging branch to which she latches. A man who can barely take care of himself and whom Audrey still resents, finds himself recruited. He’s offered the apartment above the garage, a convoluted disguise of an offer to help him– a camouflage of his host’s confused and desperate need for his presence.

The addict moves in and each family member, and even a neighbor going through a divorce, solicits his support by offering theirs to him.

The ever-revived role of the heroin addict comes with the baggage of overexposure; mostly it’s an empty space into which an actor can disappear or emerge with virtuosity. Del Toro does the latter.

He breaks down without becoming pitiful. He feels shame, apologizes, but does not wallow. Del Toro’s Jerry brings a feathered touch from a heavy soul.

Similarly, with a deft performance Berry reveals Audrey’s coexisting need and repulsion for a man she feels didn’t deserve to live, while her husband died. We witness the maturing of an actress as she paints the uncharted and excruciating journey of her character.

Both Del Toro and Berry, in their portrayals, prove there’s nothing fluky about the Oscars they hold.

The story narrative, walking a precarious line to the sides of which are deep caverns of melodrama, maintains its footing. It never questions itself or stumbles, even when its characters do.

Sentimentality looms, occasionally touches, but never coaxes us beyond a reasonable range of emotion, giving us occasional and satisfying glimpses of humanity.

Grade: B+

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