Monday, August 29, 2011

Overlooked Gems #3: Fearless

Grade: 94 (A)

Australian filmmaker Peter Weir arrived in America fresh off the art-house hits Gallipolli and The Year of Living Dangerously to conquer the world of prestige pictures. The excellent Harrison Ford vehicle Witness killed at the box office and was nominated for Best Picture, Director for Weir, and Actor for Ford (his only nomination). His 1989 film Dead Poets Society preached the obvious and featured a lousy performance from star Robin Williams but managed to succeed on all fronts as well, and Weir’s 1990 film Green Card managed to get him a screenwriting nomination. But Weir hit a speed-bump on the way to further Oscar-nominated glory with The Truman Show and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World: 1993’s Fearless. The unsettling drama was not of the same cloth as the crowd-pleasing fare Weir had delivered, and it did not feature a major star on the same level as Harrison Ford, Robin Williams, Jim Carrey or Russell Crowe. The darker-themed film starred Jeff Bridges as a man who loses his connection to reality after surviving a plane-crash. Fearless was released to mostly strong reviews but struggled at the box-office. When awards season came only Rosie Perez was recognized for her terrific performance as a grieving mother, and Fearless fell into footnote territory in the career of a great director. But Fearless deserves better than that, as it is easily the strongest of Weir’s American films and a career-highlight for the great Jeff Bridges.

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.

1 comment:

  1. Peter Weir's Fearless in it's entirety with a nice sitcom joke as a tease