Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Drunk on Foolish Pleasures: Fearless

The man emerges from a smoky cornfield, holding a baby and leading a ten year-old boy by the hand. He is leading them to safety...

... and so begins Fearless, the little-seen but terrific Peter Weir film that proves that, when pressed, the man who served up the hushed sanctimony, false piety, and utter hypocrisy of Dead Poet's Society could return to the spirit of his earlier masterpieces Picnic at Hanging Rock and Gallipoli.

I have written before of some teachers' fascination with Dead Poet's Society. Apple is currently using a long sound bite from the film to advertise their new line of iPads. That commercial makes me nauseous; when I see it, I want to throw up from atop a wooden desk shouting “Captain, my captain!”

I find myself impossibly divided when it comes to Weir and his somewhat schizophrenic resume. I love The Truman Show and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. I scratch my head at Green Card and The Mosquito Coast. Dead Poet's Society is the worst. Fearless is one of his best.
The Plot in Brief: Max Klein (Jeff Bridges) survives a horrific plane crash, saving several of the other passengers as well. He flees the scene in a cab, checks into a hotel, rents a car, and drives to an old girlfriend's house. He discovers he is no longer allergic to strawberries. The authorities track him down to his hotel, and return him to his family. Max's wife (Isabella Rossellini) is happy that he is alive, but soon discovers that the Max that came home is a very different person from the Max that got on the plane.

Max is hailed as a hero and is hounded by the press. The little boy he saved does not want to leave his side. The airline's psychiatrist (John Turturro) can’t reach him; his business partner’s skeevy lawyer won’t leave him alone. Max begins a friendship with another survivor, Carla (Rosie Perez), who lost her baby in the crash and is nearly comatose with grief. While at times he seems almost blissfully content with his new lease on life, Max's personal life and mental health are in shambles.

Critics responded well to Fearless in 1993, but it’s one of those films that seems to drop off the radar after its initial release. I think I know why. When the film was released on DVD, the studio was test-marketing a new, bare-bones discount-priced slate of movies; to keep them cheap, the movies were only released cropped. So this gloriously shot widescreen film – a film that muses about the beauty of life on this planet and includes one of the most riveting and effective plane crash sequences ever filmed -- was ONLY RELEASED CROPPED. When word of that indignity reached me, I opted out of buying the film. I think many collectors had a similar reaction. In addition, the film does not play often on cable or broadcast television. Finally, Warner Archive has released the film the way it’s meant to be seen – on high-def, widescreen Blu-ray. It looks great.
Fearless deals with life-altering tragedy and post-traumatic stress disorder in a mature and intelligent way. No two people are alike. We are snowflakes; that is one of the best things about humans. Every survivor in this film handles the psychiatric baggage from the crash differently, just as I imagine it would happen in real life. Some people cannot move on. Some are wracked by survivor's guilt. Others have the opposite reaction. For Max, surviving the plane crash makes him feel invulnerable; he compulsively seeks out other dangerous situations. While he seems to view the world with a renewed sense of wonder, he shuts out his family because they cannot share in his feelings of having tasted death. He is a complex character, and we’re never told how to feel about him or about the other damaged, struggling people who connect, or fail to connect, with Max. I find it curious how much credit Fearless gives its audience, considering how little credit Dead Poet's Society gives its audience for even being sentient mammals.

The structure, maturity and depth of the film and its characters reveal that is based on a novel. Have you ever noticed that when a film is a little more intellectually rigorous, a little more detailed, a little more peopled with real-feeling characters… in short, a little more BETTER… that it is often based on a novel? In fact my one quibble with Fearless (a somewhat unclear passage as we follow the breakdown of Bridge's marriage) seems to stem from the fact that novels have a lot more space and breathing room to handle certain elements of plot. Telescoping the marriage stuff for the sake of a movie reveals a tiny hole in the construction of the narrative. No big deal.

Like many of my favorite films, Fearless features a deep bench of wonderful supporting performers. John Turturro plays a well-meaning but ineffective therapist (apparently, he has written a book.) Benicio Del Toro plays a well-meaning but ineffective husband. Thomas Hulce plays Brillstein, one of the slimiest lawyers in movie history: a man who thinks admitting, "I know, I'm the worst!" somehow absolves him from guilt. I guess Brillstein feels it’s okay to be  an amoral weasel, as long as you’re no hypocrite about it – which is odd, since what he mostly seems to do is try to get his clients to lie. Even Rondi Reed, one of my favorite performers from Chicago's famed Steppenwolf Theater Company turns up as a survivor with a single line of dialogue.

Rosie Perez deservedly received an Oscar nomination for her performance, making this one of the few times that Uncle Oscar has gotten it right. Perez lost, however, to ten-year-old Anna Paquin's convincing portrayal of a ten-year old in The Piano, making it the 118,751th time that Uncle Oscar has gotten it wrong.
Jeff Bridges turns in one of the best performances of his career. Has Bridges EVER phoned it in? What other American actor has been doing as consistently compelling work as Bridges, ever since The Last Picture Show? People complaining that he has a limited range should be guided to his performances in Stay Hungry, King Kong, Heaven's Gate, Tron, Starman, Jagged Edge, Tucker: The Man and His Dream, The Fisher King, The Big Lebowski, The Contender, The Door in the Floor, Crazy Heart, and True Grit. The man has made 71 movies: what a body of work.

The Big Lebowski and Fearless are Jeff Bridge's two finest performances. Max Klein and Jeff Lebowski have nothing in common—they do not look, act, dress, talk, react, dance, eat, drink, or kiss in the same way—yet these movies were released only five years apart. This is testament to Bridge's range. It is more than a mere "lose yourself in the character or costume or makeup" stunt; both characters are still recognizably Jeff Bridges. This is a hard quality to describe... perhaps it’s a combination of talent and presence.

So here we have that rare Hollywood film that treats us as adults, features career-best performances from two actors, and provides intellectual fodder for the viewer to chew on for weeks on end... What are those who have never seen Fearless waiting for? No seriously, I want to know. (That’s why we have a “Comments” function.)
Roger Ebert (God, how I miss that man) said it best when discussing this film's intellectual heft. "[Fearless] makes you realize how routine life can become; how it is actually possible to be bored despite the fact that a universe has evolved for eons in order to provide us with the five senses by which we perceive it. If we ever really fully perceived the cosmic situation we are in, we would drop unconscious, I imagine, from shock. That is a little of what Fearless is about."

ONE MORE THING: As I write this, I am in my classroom. The administration recently installed motion sensors that control the lights and the heat. If a room is vacant for ten minutes, the lights and heat go out. Apparently, my typing is not motion-riffic enough to cue the sensors that I am still in the room. So riveted was I writing about this terrific film, I did not even notice that the lights were off and ventilation system had stopped! I finished writing this, freezing and in the dark... Few films can inspire such strict attention.


  1. As always great stuff JB. I saw Fearless for the first time a few years ago in trying to complete the Bridges filmography (I still love Arlington Road dammit! And no I can't defend it!). However Fearless didn't really stick with me. I must disagree with the Rosie Perez sentiments, I found she really took me out of the movie with what felt to me like an amateurish performance. Maybe it was the nomination that had me expecting too much. Either way I'll check this out again after reading the article and re-evaluate.

    I also really miss Ebert... every time I see a new release now I find myself wondering what his take would be and it is just a bummer...

  2. My work installed those motion controlled lights in the bathroom; once while taking a leisurely constitutional...

    Definitely have to check out this film as well.

  3. One of the most beautiful films I jave ever seen. Bridges is a national treasure.

    Excellent piece, JB.

  4. Great post JB. I was fortunate enough to have seen Fearless in the theater and went it basically blind, not knowing who Weir was at the time. The film has always stuck with me to this day as being one of the most moving and somehow simplistically relatable films ever. I think Bridges and Perez were so human that you felt connected to them. I can't wait to revisit it on Blu Ray.

  5. Jeff Bridges turns in one of the best performances of his career. Has Bridges EVER phoned it in? What other American actor has been doing as consistently compelling work as Bridges, ever since The Last Picture Show?

    I recently saw John Frankenheimer's 1973 four-hour movie version of Eugene O'Neill's "The Iceman Commeth" in which Bridges, fresh off "Last Picture Show," plays Parritt. He's definitely not phoning it in but he's the weakest member of the cast, but only because every other actor around Jeff is literally giving it their all in the movie performances of their life. Sorrell Booke, Moses Gunn, Frederic March (sensational as Harry Hope), Robert Ryan (amazing as Larry Slade), Lee Marvin (giving career-best work as Hickey)... just one killer performance after another. Jeff is just being a good actor reciting lines and hitting his marks making Parritt the guilt-riddled little shit that he is, but his 'good enough' performance really sticks out when everybody else is acting their guts out. Great flick, can't recommend it enough if you can stand the 4-hour running time and single location setting.

    But yeah, JB's point stands. Even for shit like "R.I.P.D." and disappointments like "The Men Who Stare at Goats" you can count of Jeff Bridges to do the opposite of what Bruce Willis seems to do with every other movie he's in: convey to the audience how bored/uninterested he is.

    And I'm definitely more a fan of the "Picnic at Hanging Rock" Peter Weir than his "Truman Show" stuff, so I'm surprised I still haven't seen "Witness" (from 1985! F This Movie Film Fest represents! They Know What They're Doing!) or "Fearless" since they both sound like they'd be right my alley.

  6. Great review JB - I've always been aware of this movie but I don't think I ever watched it, unless it was with my parents when it first came out, in which case I don't remember it, but you've made me really want to see it. Unfortunately the blu-ray has never been released in Canada and I'm not the $30+ it would cost me to import it is worth it for a catalog title I'm not SURE I'll love - might have to wait this one out but I'll definitely keep an eye out for it.

  7. Jet Li's Fearless is pretty good too.