As 'Night Mother, Prelude to a Kiss and Marvin's Room showed, grief or loss may be okay in theatre but much less so on film. Novice writer-director Michael Phelan, with Into the Fire, bravely sails straight to film with such themes and goes full-throttle into the fire to crash and burn. Yes, salvation emerges as another theme, but it doesn't salvage the film. Cast and crew, doing commendable work, are up against Phelan's extremely elliptical, time-scrambled storytelling. His fractured tale awkwardly brings together suicidal hero Walter (Sean Patrick Flanery), a suspended New York City Harbor Patrol lieutenant; June Sickles (JoBeth Williams), a neurotic Brooklyn neighbor left to raise granddaughter Quinn (Lydia Grace Jordan) after she lost her firefighter son on 9/11; Carina Hampton (Melina Kanakaredes), a Brooklyn grade-school teacher whose twin sister is a concertizing cellist; Sandy (Pablo Schreiber), Walter's buddy and partner in the Patrol; and Walter, Sr. (Ron McLarty), the hero's estranged, mentally challenged, hospitalized father.

Phelan has conjured up a jumbo jet crash in Walter's jurisdiction that brings characters past and present together, prompting memories of the incident that haunts the hero: the drowning death of his own sister while he was on lifeguard duty. The inciting incident of the airline tragedy remains frustratingly in the background and not one character demands interest or commands credibility.

If Phelan has much to learn about story value, he has learned a lesson or two about production value. Into the Fire looks good, but it's all dressed up with nowhere to go. The filmmaker never transcends his talky screenplay, and his emphatic use of music merely (ahem) underscores what his story and characters fail to do.

-Doris Toumarkine