Australian filmmaker Peter Weir arrived in
The film begins in a cornfield as a group of dirty, frightened people are led by Max Klein (Bridges) to the wreckage of their crashed plane. Max holds onto a child with one hand, a baby in another, but neither child is his. He brings the child to safety and searches for the baby’s mother. Meanwhile another survivor, Carla (Rosie Perez) screams frantically as the wreckage explodes; her baby was on board. As Max makes his way past charred corpses, frantic survivors, and odd miscellany, it’s clear that there’s something off about him. He denies having been in the crash and brings the baby to its mother. It is not Carla. Max gets into a cab and leaves the horrific scene. After showering, Max looks into the mirror in a near trancelike state and says, “You’re not dead.” Later, in the desert, Max spits into the ground and rubs the small bit of wet dirt between his fingers, almost as if he can’t believe he’s still on earth. Max drives at a high speed whilst blasting the Gypsy Kings at top volume, seemingly unconcerned with the danger as he sticks his head out the window. Max has breakfast with an old friend clearly unaware of his accident. They shoot the shit while Max eats a breakfast of strawberries. When his friend notes that he nearly died of an allergic reaction to strawberries years ago, he simply states “I’m past all that”.
Max is eventually tracked down and returns to his wife (Isabella Rossellini, rarely better) and son. A well-meaning psychiatrist (John Turturro) and a sleazy lawyer (Tom Hulce) await him, one to help heal, the other to sue the airline for damages. We learn that Max’s business partner died in the crash, and that Max saved several lives on the plane. We also learn that the formerly neurotic Max let go of all of his fear as the plane crashed, accepting the fact that he would die. When Max begins to engage in reckless behavior such as running through highway traffic and dancing on the edge of rooftops, it is because he feels invincible, as if God has failed to kill him. Max’s behavior alienates his family and those close to him. The only person he can connect to: Carla, whose 2-year-old son died in the crash, and whose grief has driven her to near-catatonia. Carla and Max’s thoroughly unsentimental friendship never delves into expected territory, such as an affair or even unrequited love. The devoutly Catholic Carla and atheist Max bond through their shared disconnection from the world and their unexpected loss of loved ones (Carla’s son in the crash and Max’s father when he was 13), and Max helps Carla move past her grief. But only Max’s family can save him.
Those expecting the Peter Weir of Dead Poets Society to see a man letting go of petty neuroticisms were undoubtedly perturbed by Bridges’ erratic, frequently disturbing actions. Fearless is an often harrowing journey, with Bridges playing an often unlikable man inconsiderate of others’ feelings. Bridges, one of cinema’s all-time great actors, plays a man liberated from all of his fears and social mores, but this includes his status as a husband and father. Called by Pauline Kael “the least self-conscious screen actor that has ever lived”, Bridges does not endear himself to the audience. And yet it isn’t impossible to understand his character’s behavior. Max has survived a terrifying experience, and feels as if he can no longer waste his life. Weir has often dealt with the theme of seeing the world in a new way (Witness, Dead Poets Society, The Truman Show), but rarely as effectively as here. In the film’s climax, Henryk Gorecki’s gorgeous Symphony No. 3 plays as the crash is finally shown, juxtaposed with a final crisis for Max. In a truly moving moment, a connection is rebuilt, and despite all the loss and grief, a little light finally shines through.