I approached reviewing this film with the kind of dread one feels when boarding a plane in turbulent weather, knowing the outcome will not be pleasant. I saw Fearless when it first came out in 1993, and it literally took me a week to come down from depression and moments of panic. Very few films have affected me in such a visceral way. It may have been the culmination of a lot of things going on in my life, but whether it was that, my own paralyzing fear of flight, or the story, direction and performances, it turned out to be a perfect storm in my life that I will never forget.
Director Peter Weir excels at many themes, one in particular is whether one man can be an island; Witness, The Truman Show, The Mosquito Coast, and Fearless all examine the nature of isolation and individual determination; whatever the consequences. His work in Fearless, though, pushes all these elements almost as far as they can go; testing his characters’ and the audiences’ mettle.
We open on a cornfield, wind blowing a flurry of dust and dirt. Out of this fog comes Jeff Bridges, carrying a baby and leading a boy who clutches him tightly. A group of people follow. As the camera swoops wide we see the burning fuselage of a plane and emergency crews running to help. It’s quite evident these are the survivors of a horrific crash. As Bridges stumbles past burned corpses, a cowboy boot, split open luggage and appendages, he reacts as any survivor emerging from a disaster of this magnitude might; with shock and confusion.
We also see Carla (Rosie Perez) a young woman screaming for her baby as she is wrenched from the main body of the plane just as it explodes in a fire ball.
These are all images we would expect to see following a plane crash; but there is a difference. Weir chooses to film it all with an eye to the alien. Everything is recognizable, but presented in a haphazard, unusual way, because we are following Bridges perspective, and his complete disassociation. The first thing he does is grab a cab and check into a motel. He rents a car and continues his journey home, stopping to visit an old flame, now married. He lies on the roadside, studying the horizon, spitting into the dirt and marveling at the impact he continues to make on his environment. He turns the Gipsy Kings up loud on the car radio and shouts to the heavens. He eats strawberries, a fruit that before he would have near fatal allergic reactions to. Nothing can hurt him now.
As the plane crash comes back to Bridges, we jump to it over and over again, as pieces of the tragedy come to light. Bridge’s character Max Klein is deathly afraid of flying, and a nervous wreck sitting next to his business partner. He senses something is wrong with the plane’s hydraulics, moments before it takes a deep dive. Right before impact, he looks at the light out the passenger window and accepts his death, releases his fear and “lets go.”
This new Klein is the man who is discovered by the FBI in his hotel room and escorted to reunite with his wife and son. The airline offers him a train ticket home, but resolutely, he wants to fly. A psychiatrist who specializes in crash survivors (John Turturro) sits on the plane with him, at odds on how to deal with Klein, who is calm, disinterested and antagonistic.
Klein is now an alien in a foreign world. He becomes more and more withdrawn from his wife and his son, believing himself dead. He has nothing to fear, because he is indestructible. The young boy he led through the cornfield is drawn to Klein, and the two share an unspoken bond.
Perez’s Carla is almost catatonic after the loss of her child. She wants to die. Turturro brings Klein to her in hopes that they can connect. More and more survivors come out of the accident’s mist, looking to Klein as their guardian angel; he led them out of the wreckage in a calm and reassuring voice, like a modern day messiah, rescuing them before the plane exploded.
Klein becomes more connected to Carla as he disconnects from his life, all to the chagrin of Mrs. Klein (Isabella Rossellini). His daily sojourns around the city with Carla may be bringing the childless mother some solace, but according to his wife, it’s forcing Klein deeper down a dark chasm.
Fearless’ screenplay, written by Rafael Yglesias and based on his own novel, deftly walks a thin line between the melodramatic and the revelatory, as Max Klein caroms from empathetic to foreign, from hero to antagonist. He is at once selfish and cruel, at other times loving and heroic. His moment of epiphany when he demonstrates to Carla that she could never be responsible for her baby’s death is a stroke of suicidal genius.
Klein cannot tell a lie, is brutally honest, death defying, contemptible and inspirational; going as far as posing, Christ-like, on the edge of a building, offering himself up for sacrifice, dancing and shaking his ass at God and at all of us that are held back by fear. Or are we really just holding strong to our own survival instincts, which Klein, in his PSTD, has completely lost? Is he a man or a symbol?
This is all very heady stuff, and in lesser hands would fall flat and ring false. (The Paul Haggis film Crash attempted to be an all encompassing modern analogy and piece of revelatory art about life and death, but fell as far as Fearless soared. Interesting then, that Crash won Best Picture for 2006 and Fearless was completely snubbed in 1994.) Instead, Weir and Yglesias tell a powerfully moving, tragic and ethereal story that seems to tap into our innate fears, both tangible and ephemeral, in a way few filmmakers ever have.
And the actor who all of this hangs on is Jeff Bridges, arguably the greatest living American actor. His ability to pivot from a leader we believe in, to a villain we dislike, is rendered so perfectly, he could almost play the part without dialogue; his performance one of the modern equivalents to the silent film masters a lifetime before.
The biggest philosophical question of all, should Klein continue living in this world a ghost, or end his life and transition to the next level he yearns for, like a commuter who missed a train, is answered in a brilliant and unexpected twist that proves the master storytellers have at the end, masterfully delivered the goods.
And so Fearless asks the viewer these questions, and demands we bare our souls for self-judgment and analysis. For many, the reaction is to dismiss the whole business as pretentious and false, and upon its release, that’s how many critics and audiences reacted. But if you have the guts to embrace the film and its message, it could be, like a poison you ingest to kill off a greater disease, painful and disturbing. In the end though, it could just change your life, like it did for me.
Fearless is available as a manufacture on demand (MOD) Blu-ray through Warner Archive.