"Things We Lost in the Fire" is rough going at times, and not just because of its downbeat subject matter, its examination of catastrophic loss and the different ways people attempt to deal with it.
But though it is erratic and can come off as manufactured, this film has the gift of gathering strength as it goes on. Potent when it needs to be, it harnesses the talents of stars Halle Berry and Benicio Del Toro in ways that ultimately make us sit up and take notice.
Doing the harnessing and making her American debut is Danish director Susanne Bier. Celebrated for her exceptional European work -- "Brothers" was nominated for 11 European Film Academy awards and "After the Wedding" was one of last year's nominees for the foreign-language Oscar -- Bier does the kind of films that made her arrival on these shores inevitable.
Often attracted to stories that involve conflicts between family members and other people who ought to be close, Bier is notable for her willingness to deal seriously and unapologetically with the strongest possible emotions. That talent animates the core of "Things We Lost in the Fire" and makes it worth seeing despite its unevenness.
The facility of the Oscar-winning Del Toro with emotional material, very much in evidence here, is not a surprise. But it is especially satisfying to report that, as widow and mother Audrey Burke, Berry, who has made some unfortunate career choices, does what's easily her best work since winning her Academy Award for 2001's "Monster's Ball."
It's Audrey's loss that the film focuses on initially, as Allan Loeb's script tells us almost at once that her husband, Brian (David Duchovny), has been killed. Because Brian was a wealthy Seattle-area developer, Audrey has no financial worries, but she does have two young children (Alexis Llewellyn and Micah Berry) who are as bereft by this turn of events as she is.
At the last minute, just before the funeral, Audrey thinks of inviting the most problematic person in her life, Jerry Sunborne (Del Toro), her husband's best friend since childhood, who has gone in and out of heroin addiction as long as she's known him.
"I hated you for so many years and now it seems silly," Audrey tells him when he arrives. Deprived of the only person who hadn't given up on him, Jerry is as much at a loss in his life as Brian's widow is. With nothing in common except the dead man, these two tentatively gravitate toward an emotional détente that might allow each of them to keep living.
Before this scenario even begins to play out, however, "Things" presents extensive flashbacks of what life with Brian was like for both Audrey and Jerry. It's not clear why these sequences go on as long as they do, but Brian turns out to have been such an exemplary human being that his presence on screen becomes an irritant. It's not only hard to be a saint in the city, it's not very interesting.
Other things are sporadically troublesome about the film. The story goes in and out of being self-consciously earnest and ponderous, a situation that numerous tight close-ups of people's eyes does nothing to help.
Though well acted, scenes involving Jerry's addiction, including meeting Alison Lohman's Kelly at a support group, are unsentimental but awfully familiar.
Fortunately, this is not the end of the story. Whenever you are about to give up on this film, a powerful dramatic moment between Berry and Del Toro will take place, the two actors will go toe to toe in an intense way, and the push-pull of their relationship holds us in its sway.
To its credit, "Things We Lost in the Fire" is determined not to make things easy for Audrey and Jerry, not in their personal lives or in their relationship to each other. Keeping it simple would lessen the emotional content of what's on screen, and that is something no one involved with this film was prepared to do.
"Things We Lost in the Fire." MPAA rating: R for drug content and language. Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes. In general release.