Doane Gregory, Dreamworks Pictures
Halle Berry, left, and Benicio Del Toro star as two people brought together by tragedy in the dramatic "Things We Lost in the Fire."
THINGS WE LOST IN THE FIRE — **** — Halle Berry, Benicio Del Toro; rated R (drugs, profanity)

Halle Berry, two-time Oscar winner.

It could happen.

After taking home the little golden guy for "Monster's Ball" in 2001, Berry embarked on what should have been a career-destroying string of turkeys like "Catwoman" and "Perfect Stranger."

She redeems herself in Suzanne Bier's aching drama "Things We Lost in the Fire," giving a performance of depth, power and vulnerability.

And Benicio Del Toro (another past Oscar winner) matches her step for step.

In the wrong hands the situation posed by Allan Loeb's screenplay quickly could have turned to treacle. Audrey Burke (Berry) loses her builder husband Steven (David Duchovny, seen only in flashbacks) to street crime. In her grief and loneliness she asks Steven's oldest friend, the substance-abusing former lawyer Jerry (Del Toro), to move in with her and the kids.

You can practically feel that wave of emotional uplift bearing down like an avalanche of maple syrup.

But Bier, the Danish director of art-house hits like "Brothers" and "After the Wedding," steers clear of Hollywood formula. Her low-key, naturalistic style comes by its dramatic moments honestly, with little manipulation and lots of character development.

The result is an emotional marathon, an astonishing evocation of pain, loss and, finally, hope. This is not a movie for wimps.

Along the way it also becomes one of the best films ever about addiction.

The relationship between Audrey and the heroin-hooked Jerry has always been tense. Many are the times that Steven has left his family sleeping in their nice suburban home and journeyed to L.A.'s Skid Row to see Jerry, a childhood buddy whose life has been on a steady downward spiral. Steven could always be counted on to treat Jerry to a meal, a bag of groceries and a few dollars.

Steven's loyalty to Jerry was a point of contention and irritation within his marriage.

Now, Audrey decides, it's time for Jerry to repay all those favors. She moves him into an unfinished room in the garage destroyed a few months earlier by fire. Jerry can take care of the kids — Dory (Micah Berry, no relation) and Harper (Alexis Llewellyn) — while Audrey devotes herself to mourning.

Jerry cleans up his act, starts hitting a twelve-step program and struggles to cope with normalcy. But after years of riding a needle, quitting is more than just a matter of will.

Rarely has the human face been studied with the intensity it is here. Bier's camera (the cinematographer is Tom Stern, a veteran of Clint Eastwood's recent films) will often settle on an eye, a lip — even an ear. It sounds like affectation but it's astonishing what these micro-portraits can reveal about their subjects' inner states.

So intense is the film's central relationship that it's a relief when the picture brings in other characters. Omar Benson Miller is a warm presence as Audrey's brother, a hulking figure with a heart of gold. Alison Lohman is her usual terrific self as Kelly, a recovering addict who gets pulled into the Burkes' world. ("Does it get better?" the grief-stricken Audrey asks. "It gets different," Kelly answers.)

And John Carroll Lynch (you may not know the name but you'll immediately recognize him) is a scene-stealer as Howard, a neighbor who effortlessly transfers his friendship with Steven to the scraggly Jerry. There's a priceless early morning scene in which the brain-fogged doper is awakened by Howard, who announces that he went jogging every morning with Steve and hopes that Steve's junkie pal will continue the tradition.

All this is enacted with pitch-perfect emotional calibration and an uncompromising honesty. "Things We Lost in the Fire" refrains from giving us a nice neat conclusion all tied up with a bow. Audrey and Jerry don't fall into each other's arms in a romantic swoon. Addictions are not effortlessly abandoned. The picture is open-ended and a bit messy.

Just like life.

"Things We Lost in the Fire" is rated R for drug content and language. Running time: 119 minutes.