After seeing Things We Lost in the Fire, I want to live a deeper and truer love, one based more in freedom than satisfaction. Of course, we know that not everything called love is, in fact, real love, but compared to a typical film, Fire explores a different and nuanced aspect of this. Loss of a loved one is painful, particularly in its ripping apart of relational attachments. Yet there are multiple ways of being attached to a loved one. Beyond the real love that Audrey and Brian shared, she was attached in a dependent way that did not allow open space for Brian’s care of and concern for others.
I come away from the film wanting to take care with my love for and attachment to others. I want to root out attachments that center on what I want from others and that seek first my own comfort, security, and pleasure in relationship. Instead, I want my pleasure and security to arise from what others are growing to be and from seeking and finding joy in the the beauty of their lives — even when that takes them away from me — and in the beauty in our lives together.
To begin with the obvious, Brian’s death hits Audrey hard. Of course, the death of a loved one is cause for grief — and the more we love, the more grief there will be — but there’s more than Brian’s death that Audrey must come to terms with. This something more is the primary space in which Things We Lost in the Fire treds. In our first glimpses of Audrey’s pain, it seems normal (if there is such a thing upon losing a beloved spouse), but as Fire continues, another major source of her struggle gradually emerges.
Something more to Audrey’s pain
Although Audrey maintains her composure as she explains to Harper about Brian’s mom’s sedation (a moment that has notable signifance later), we see the pain in her eyes as she arranges flowers. It is too painful for her to go into Brian’s room. When she asks her brother Neal to reply to a computer message from one of Brian’s friends as if he were still alive, Neal decides she is too fragile to be confronted, vacillating with a look of frustration and helplessness as he decides against his better judgment to send the message. Still, even if Audrey's request is odd, we can understand it as a moment of refusing to accept Brian's death.
We first see the shadows of a larger struggle for Audrey when she and Jerry meet. She tells Jerry, "I hated you for so many years," revealing how Jerry had been a barrier between she and Brian. Brian was "loyal to a fault," Audrey says — in other words, she thinks he was wrong to have shown such kindness to Jerry. Later, when we see the flashback of Audrey yelling at Brian to "wake up" about Jerry, we learn how strongly Audrey felt. Now, after Brian is gone, she softens toward Jerry, though it's not clear why. It's one thing to say, "it seems so silly" to have hated Jerry so, but why would she say, "I need you to stay"? She's searching, grasping. Perhaps she feels guilty. Perhaps she senses she might, through Jerry, hold on to something of Brian.
She becomes drawn toward Jerry more than she might have expected. At the family dinner later that evening, it gives Audrey pause when Jerry knows the ending to Brian's sister Brenda's swimming pool story. She keeps looking at Jerry after he says the punch line, maybe surprised or else trying to figure out how he knew. She doesn't laugh like the others do, but looks at Jerry until he looks back. Then she looks down and blinks, tearing up a bit and eeking out the smallest of smiles before looking back to Brenda.
Drawn into the fire of Audrey's confusion
Audrey stays confused about Jerry. She tries to ward off the pain of losing Brian by staying busy, but she is unmoored and adrift. Simple tasks are hard. Mistakes are easy. Her thoughts are drawn back to Jerry. She goes to him. They have a cordial conversation, although in her focus on his drug use, she seems to be struggling unsurely with his dark side.
Life remains hard. Audrey can't deal with Harper and Dory's ordinary sibling disputes. Later, finding the cash she had lost in the car, she realizes she was in some way wrong about Jerry. She makes a sudden choice to invite him (almost command him, actually) to live in the garage apartment. Although she lies to him about her financial need, in some respect she tells the truth about herself when she says, "I'm the one who needs help here." Jerry goes along with her idea. When he later learns about the lie and asks her, "Why am I here?" she finally speaks her confusion: "I don't really know."
In her next sentence, however, Audrey begins the process of gaining clarity: "You know, it should have been you, Jerry." The truth is forcing itself out: Audrey is in a battle with herself about Jerry. She wants him close, so that she can hold on to something of Brian. On the other hand, she despises him — and is somehow still angry at Brian, too. In the fog of her feelings at the funeral, she had said her hate for Jerry seemed silly, but now her hate comes back.
But she is confusing the issue. She had told Brian how she was afraid he wouldn't come back, but Jerry's dangerous part of town had nothing to do with it. Brian was killed in their own neighborhood while getting ice cream for the kids. Yet Brian did die as a result of helping others, like with Jerry. This is all conflated in Audrey's heart. She just knows that Brian died because he gave part of his heart to people other than her, and she puts that all on Jerry.
On the side of "she wants him close," she asks Jerry to stand in for Brian, helping her sleep — but the intimacy is beyond appropriate. In the sequence where she asks Jerry about heroin, she toys suggestively as she approaches him, but then pulls back when he, drawn in, leans to kiss her. She's using Jerry; she's pulling him both ways. Why does she not simply use sedatives, as her mother-in-law did earlier in the film? She wants him around, but only for her purposes, on her terms — not unlike how she wanted Brian to live on her terms in regard to Jerry.
The side of "she despises him" wins out as Audrey is increasingly reminded of her sense that Jerry is a barrier between she and Brian. Innocently, he displaces Brian — even tarnishes Brian's image — by getting Dory to put his head under water. He knows the secret about Brian and Harper's theater outings that Audrey wasn't privy to — and potentially it is her fault that she didn't know (Brian may have thought she would have put an end to it). Though she wants to retain something of Brian, these "intrusions" between her and Brian are too much for Audrey. Summarily, she kicks Jerry out of their lives — just as she had wanted to kick him out of Brian's life.
Audrey's visceral moment of redemptive turn
Though Harper and Dory don't know why Jerry left, they implicitly call Audrey's actions into question. She assures Harper that Jerry will be fine, seeming quite confident about it, but Dory puts a more surprising and direct point on it: "Does that mean Jerry's gonna die now?" A close-up shows Audrey's startled eye.
Audrey is later worried and fretting. She goes into Jerry's room. She is sitting with the phone right next to her when Kelly calls, and she immediately answers the phone, "Jerry?" Her fear that Jerry has relapsed jolts Audrey into risking as much or more as Brian did to rescue Jerry. She now realizes, viscerally, what was at stake when Brian said of Jerry's birthday, "Who...knows how many more he'll have?" Whether she thinks consciously or not about how she has had a need for control and security with Brian, the vision of Jerry's possible death changes her perspective about how Brian invested in others' lives.
With her changed perspective, Audrey can now, so to speak, share Brian with Jerry as they remember him together. She can appreciate it when Jerry remembers things about Brian (like that Dory runs circles like Brian used to). She can offer her own remembrances (that she misses Brian's silliness). They can speak intimate thoughts (that Jerry finds her beautiful, and on the inside, too). At dinner, Kelly takes Audrey (and Harper and Dory) a step further by prompting them to remember specific things about Brian: his favorite music, what he drank after dinner, the toothpaste he used.
Her resentment gone toward Jerry and toward Brian, her memory reconnected to Brian in a clear way, Audrey can finally grieve Brian's passing for the loss itself rather than for the issues around it. She can go into his office. Seeing Brian's list of things lost in the fire, with its reminder of his wisdom, she breaks down. She is in a better place from which to appreciate him all the more, including what she learned from Brian through Jerry. And she is able to move on: At the film's closing, she arrives home in a sedan, apparently having sold both the SUV and an old orange BMW, presumably Brian's, that had been sitting in their carport.
Jerry, Kelly, and the Serenity Prayer
On its own, Jerry's trajectory in the film is not as complicated as Audrey's, but it has an intricate relationship with Audrey's trajectory. His addiction is more clear and visible than hers, but they are both caught up in a need for comfort and the ability to control it — he with a needle, she by trying to keep Brian to herself. The film signals the parallel in that, after the funeral, Audrey scrubs the hallway floor of her house, while Jerry mops the hallway floor of the clinic. They both need to do clean-up and rehab.
Kelly's role as healer is wrapped up in her concern for the Serenity Prayer. Jerry's rejection of the prayer provides a symbolic alert to its negation in the film. Audrey refused to accept Brian's death. Kelly's role as catalyst for healing is most clear at dinner when she forces acceptance through remembering Brian. Until then, Audrey had said little in remembrance of Brian.
Jerry, on the other hand, is trying hard to change something he can't (on his own): his addiction. His attempt to go it alone comes out when Audrey asks him whether he takes methadone at the McKinley Clinic. He says, "Uh uh. Not me," but he says it with a dismissive tone and shake of his head. After Audrey's rejection, his relapse and then her reacceptance set a new tone for Jerry. Audrey's invitation to Kelly opens a new door for him. He learns that, though he thought her a mere acquaintance, he instead has a loyal and deeply caring friend. Finally he realizes he can't go it alone, and he can accept Audrey's help with the rehab program.
For her own part, Kelly embodies the serenity prayer. She accepts, with frustration, that they told the old woman about her cancer. As she speaks the words "accept the things I cannot change," she is watching Jerry walk out of the meeting without regard for the prayer. She learned through the difficult struggle of having accepted the loss her love, so that she might have courage for a new life and love. Life doesn't necessarily get better, in the sense that you get over it, but as Kelly says to Audrey, "It gets different." Her wisdom allows her to help both Audrey and Jerry with their lives.
What's up with the title?
More than most films, a look back at Things We Lost in the Fire begs the question, "Why choose this title?" The central event of the film is Brian's death, not the fire. The key bit of dialog about the things lost is Brian saying that they were just things, and they still had each other, but they don't still have each other. The central character development of the film is Audrey learning to accept, if not embrace, the risks of sharing a loved one with others and of letting loved ones live how their hearts direct them. What does the title's centering on the "things lost" throw into focus?
For half the film, Jerry inhabits the empty place where the things lost in the fire had been. Similarly, Jerry in some measure inhabits the empty place in the Burkes' lives where Brian had been — as Harper not only verbalizes, but suggests should be made permanent in an Audrey-Jerry marriage. Brian was telling Audrey that she was holding too tightly to the things but, as it turned out, she was also holding too tightly to him. Just as she felt out of control watching the fire, she felt out of control when Brian went to visit Jerry.
We know that it is our relationships and the people in our lives that really matter, but nonetheless, fearing the loss of the things, we cling tightly. We are far less likely to notice when we cling tightly to people. We simply call it love, when really it's a dependence, an addiction. Jealously clinging, refusing to accept the constant possibility that we might lose them — whether they do risky things or not — we desire control; we don't want to allow them to be independent, creative, free beings with whom we are privileged, for God knows how long, to live with, love with, grow with.
Like Jerry, we have a dream, except really it's a nightmare. In the dream, we lose control; we're frantic. We think that's the bad part. Fretting and scrambling, we regain control. We are at peace. And that really is the bad part, because control is an addiction — an addiction from which we recover only one day at a time...one day at a time.
- Opening with a drug theme, with Brian's mom sedated to help her sleep because of the pain. This echoes across all of the film, particularly in Jerry's addiction and in Audrey's selfish toying with Jerry rather than (properly) using sedatives.
- When Audrey says, "That's Brian's computer," we cut to her brother, Neal, who ever so slightly turns his head. His questioning turn prompts us to access the pain that prevents Audrey from going into Brian's office, yet without either of them directly stating it.
- When Audrey tells Neal to reply to Brian's friend's message as though it were Brian, his hesitation and movements of eye, mouth, and head wonderfully embody the struggle of being around one in pain, not knowing when to draw a line versus when to go along with inappropriate requests so as not to cause strife or pain.
- The film's introduction of Jerry: We learn suddenly that he is an important person based on Audrey's behavior when she realizes she forgot to tell him, but we are left hanging on the question, "Who's Jerry Sunborne?" Cutting to him walking outside the window, we know his face, but the answer to the question develops only slowly over time. It draws us towards Jerry, as well as mirroring Audrey's slowly getting to know the person Jerry versus the nemesis she had always thought him to be.
- When Howard throws down his half-smoked cigarette, Jerry bends to snuff it with his finger, pick it up, and save it to smoke later — it speaks to Jerry's desperateness that he won't let it go to waste.
- When Brian is leaving Jerry's apartment, Jerry looks out the window at him getting in the car. Hanging from the over-street electrical lines is a sign saying "Power -->" which is pointing straight at Brian. Later, a similar shot of Audrey is from a different angle, without the same sign or alignment.
- At the family dinner, when Jerry says the punch line, he does so quickly, clearing his throat before and immediately taking a drink after — it portrays some level of discomfort on Jerry's part, as though he realizes he's an outsider somehow intruding with private family knowledge.
- With the shadow of the tree by which Brian was killed in the background, Harper begins her suggestion that Jerry and Audrey should marry. They pause right at this spot to discuss the question. Jerry says he can't, "because that would make it so my best friend never existed." When Harper says, "But...he did exist," they start walking again. The sequence creates a sort of continuity with and closure for the question of whether Jerry will pick up where Brian was cut short (it happens after the almost-kiss), as well as a sort of memorial to Brian.
- The filmmakers showed great restraint in the scene where Audrey retrieves Jerry. It would be tempting (and reasonable) to fill the scene with greater on screen peril for Audrey, yet this would have been distracting. Instead, there is only one brief, "Hey, baby!" directed at her. We sufficiently get the point of the risk Audrey took from this and from Kelly saying, "You don't want to go there."
- At the dinner with Kelly, the camera hangs on Jerry and Audrey looking at each other — first Jerry, then Audrey, then back to Jerry. When the camera returns to Jerry, his head is turned slightly, though his eyes still look directly at Audrey, and he smiles ever so slightly. This occurs immediately after Jerry is surprised by seeing Kelly and Audrey says that she invited her, making it reasonable to presume that Jerry has learned that his rescue started with Kelly, and thus that Kelly cares for him. Since the film has established that Audrey and Jerry will not be together, Jerry's gaze at Audrey speaks of a new realization that Audrey is looking out for him, that she was right to bring Kelly and him together, and that he appreciates it.
- Although Susanne Bier's extreme close ups bother some people — and indeed they can be uncomfortable — I find that, when I take them as concrete access points to a character's soul or to the physicality of smells and textures, they work well and add important emphasis to the film.
One final remark: At least one version of the screenplay is downloadable (from this page or search for "script_thingswelost.pdf"). I don't know whether this is Allan Loeb's final version or not, but it matches the released film perhaps by as little as 60%. The film is miles better. Comparing the script and the film, and seeing precisely where and how the film is better, is a marvelous exercise in appreciating excellent filmcraft.
Screenshots and dialog copyright ©
2007 by the filmmakers.