A House on Fire (Sarif, 2021) tells the story of Debora Green (Stephanie March), a doctor (in residency) with an IQ of 163. She’s brilliant and knows it. A scrapbook of her dreams which include a big house, more like a mansion and kids is something she cherishes and continues to do throughout her life. Her desire for a husband doesn’t seem to be part of that dream or vision, but to get the kids she needs a husband or a “sperm donor”, as she tells her fellow colleague and friend Dr. Jim Surge.
Dr. Michael ‘Mike’ Farrar (Shaun Benson) is also a doctor and part of the same residency as Debora at the same hospital who takes a liking to Debora. When he finally gets up the nerve to ask her out for coffee, she rejects him, politely, for she didn’t see it as him asking her out. It took Jim to clue her in. Because of feeling bad, or does she, for not recognizing him asking her out, she asks him out.
FIRST DATE AND 10 THE YEAR PLAN
Their first date is a run on a long trail. After their run, Debora asks him where does he see himself in 10 years to which he answers, married with kids and having a good life. This statement gains Debora’s attention and attraction to Mike even more. Soon they are married with kids. As Mike tells the detectives,” We were married for 17 years.”
The story, as the viewer soon learns, is told through conversations Mike and Debora are having with the detectives after the fire. Mike is in one room and Debora in another, with the detectives interviewing them both as well trying to figure out who started the fire.
When the viewer is back with Debora and Mike at home, they have been married 17-years and have two kids. It’s approximately six months before the fire. They live in a modest, yet, nice house. Mike has found a big house he thinks Debora will like, for it’s one of her dreams. After they all visit the house, Mike wants to discuss buying the house with Debora before they move forward. However, Debora is set on it. Upon coming home from work, Mike finds Debora in the kitchen with the real estate agent discussing the closing of the house. Mike is against it.
It’s not long before the house they are currently living in catches fire. At this time, no one was home for Debora’s act was not malicious, but an act of desperation to get the house she really wants. The destruction of their home forces Mike’s hand to buy the house of Debora’s dream. All is great until it’s not.
There are few changes that take place. One being Debora’s addiction to pain pills. While hurrying out of the home she falls in the kitchen and sprains her wrist. Her friend. Dr. Jim Surge prescribes pain medication, opiates, for her and thus begins her addition. The constant taking of meds leads her to prescribe meds for her patients but keeping them for herself. She also begins to lose sight of her job as well as to get board-certified and is soon removed from the hospital. Not only is she removed she can no longer practice medicine until she becomes board certified. Mike learns of her removal from a co-worker.
Mike confronts Debora about what he’s learned but brings up a conversation they had a while back that if they have enough money for one of them to retire, they would. Now the time has come and it’s Debora who will retire and stay home with the kids. She agrees to this but isn’t happy about it. All the free time Debora is only leading her to take more pills and drinking even more to where she’s passing out at home and forgetting to pick the kids up from school.
AND AN AFFAIR
Becoming fed-up with the situation at home Mike begins an affair with one of the moms from his kids’ school. Debora soon becomes aware of it and tells her kids. But this isn’t the first time Debora has spoken ill of Mike to the kids and it won’t be the last. She has and is slowly turning the kids against their father, especially the son, Tim.
Mike soon files for divorce and threatens to take the kids from Debora. Mike has reached his breaking point which leads Debora to take drastic measures. But she had already been taking drastic measures with Mike by slowly poisoning him with castor beans.
Ricin is a poison found naturally in castor beans. If castor beans are chewed and swallowed, the released ricin can cause injury. Ricin can be made from the waste material left over from processing castor beans. (source: CDC)
Her mental health is deteriorating and she’s refusing to acknowledge her current state Debora sees no other way out and no other way to get back at Mike but to burn the house down with her kids inside.
Where there’s smoke…
While the house is on fire the audience sees the smoke slowly creeping through the rooms. Whether it’s intentional or not on the part of the director Shamim Sarif the smoke, at least to me, symbolizes the slow deterioration of Debora’s mind. The way the smoke moved its way throughout the house, beginning on the main floor and then moving upstairs, along with the fire, brings to light how subtle, yet dangerous, Debora’s mind was becoming and became.
Debora in a white gown
On the night of the fire, Debora is wearing a white nightgown. This very well may have been intentional on the director’s part due to the symbolism of the color white:
The white color also symbolizes purity and innocence. A white dress is also a sign of femininity and innocence. (source: VeryWellMind)
In the interrogation room, Mike is visibly upset while Debora, in her own interrogation room, is cool as a cucumber. During the interview, Debora makes mention of her kids being dead to the detectives but the detectives never said her kids were dead. Another odd thing that takes place is Debora tells the detectives that she wants to inform Mike of the death of the kids. Instead, the detectives tell him themselves while letting him know Debora wanted to tell him. Then they ask him why would she want to tell him. After watching the entire movie, the viewer knows exactly why Debora wanted to tell him. It’s her last jab at him and to get him where it really hurts, the death of his kids. Mike loved his son and daughter despite Debora’s attempts to turn them against him.
Director Shamim Sarif did an excellent job in telling the story of Debora from her promising days as a doctor to her slow descent into mental health. Sarif is able to bring strong, yet subtle moves by Debora such as her turning the can of castor beans around so the label is not showing. Since Mike is a doctor, he would know exactly the danger of the beans and might connect Debora slowly poisoning him. And let’s not forget the slow movement of smoke throughout the house.
A BITTER HARVEST THAT IS A HOUSE ON FIRE
A HOUSE ON FIRE is currently on Lifetime Move Network and worth viewing. Check your local listings.