Denmark's Susanne Bier made her U.S. debut adapting an original script and directing a fine cast that helps elevate movie-of-the-week subject matter into a heart-felt meditation on recovery and loss.
Successful Seattle area real-estate developer Steven Burke (David Duchovny) is senselessly gunned down outside an ice cream shop while trying to protect a battered woman from her abuser. On the morning of his wake, Brian's widow, Audrey (Halle Berry), realizes she's forgotten to invite one of the most important people in Steven's life: His childhood friend, Jerry Sunborne (Benecio Del Toro). Once a lawyer, Jerry is now a full-time junkie whom Audrey has never liked; she could never understand Steven's attachment to such a loser, and even suspects him of having stolen $60. from Steven's Land Rover on the last night they saw each other alive. Audrey's brother (Omar Benson Miller) finds Jerry strung-out in a downtown SRO, but Jerry is able to pull himself together enough to put on a suit and attend the funeral. As a tribute to Brian, who never gave up on his friend, Jerry enters a twelve-step recovery program and even moves into a Seattle methadone clinic. Audrey, meanwhile, falls apart: Unable to cope with her anger, confusion and grief, she throws herself into mindless housework by day and lies awake at night, missing the way Brian lulled her to sleep by tugging on her earlobe. With nowhere else to turn, Audrey unexpectedly turns to Jerry. She offers him a room in her half-finished detached garage -- Brian was in the middle of restoring it after a fire when he was murdered -- and assures Jerry that she's not doing it out of charity; eventually he'll be straight enough to get a job and pay rent. Jerry settles in, bonds with Audrey and Brian's kids (Alexis Llewellyn, Micah Berry), and even begins jogging with neighbor Howard Glassman (John Carroll Lynch), a real-estate broker who suggests Jerry take the Washington State Real Estate exam and come work for him. But as Jerry's life steadily improves, Audrey finds it increasingly difficult to move on. Despite her kind gestures toward her husband's old friend, it soon becomes clear that Audrey is not only jealous of Jerry's memories of the separate life he shared with Brian, but resents the fact that an unemployed junkie like Jerry is alive while a man like the father of her children is dead.
Del Toro and Berry both turn in the kind of performances that win Oscars, or at least Oscar nominations: Del Toro's Jerry is both haunted and enormously charismatic while Berry boldly does nothing to soften the prickly points of Audrey's difficult personality. Simply put, grief has made her a bitch and she wasn't that nice to begin with. Allen Loeb's first produced screenplay is an unvarnished treatment of death and its aftermath that's unusual for a Hollywood film. Ditto the film's visual style: Bier, a veteran of the Danish Dogme95 collective that demanded raw authenticity over artificial gloss, brings an honest, distinctly European feel to the melodrama. Could this mean a new direction for popular American movies? Let's hope so.
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