[After checking sporadically for more than a year for some legal version of this film to watch (and even the illegal versions were of such poor quality as to be avoided), I'm happy to say that Fearless is now available for DVD and streaming through Netflix.]
In medium-long shots of a cornfield framing stalks in the middle plane that obscure the background, a disheveled man appears, shrouded by smoke, holding the hand of a young boy and cradling a baby with his free hand. As the man walks through the field, others appear behind him as if dropping fully formed from the stalks, milling about in bewilderment until the camera tracks with them to reveal the wreckage of a downed plane. The man does not bat an eye, and we learn through his blunt dialogue that the kids he's holding are not his own. He hands them off to responsible parties, takes one last look around, heads over to a cabbie and asks to be driven to a motel.
Peter Weir's Fearless has one of the most carefully modulated, deliberately vexing, utterly transfixing openings of any English-language Hollywood film to be mercilessly and inexplicably relegated to the realm of the unknown (and less than 20 years after it premiered). The man Weir follows is Max Klein (Jeff Bridges), an architect heading to a business meeting across the country with his partner. One almost gets the impression that the camera does not follow Max in a premeditated path but stopped upon him as it gazed over the scene and could not tear itself away. Bridges' face is unreadable as he hands the guardian-less child to authorities and returns the baby to its mother (without even stopping to say anything once he hands over the child). There's a strange, unsettling creepiness to the look of near-contentment on his face, the look one expects to see when someone wakes up from a damn good sleep.
Weir, working with a script by Rafael Yglesias (adapting his own novel), does not get into what is up with Max, instead moving through mysterious scenes that cut away before something approaching an explanation might arise. A director known more for his consistency of quality than anything, Weir achieves a poetry here he has not shown in his other features: Max rents a car to drive across country to get back to San Francisco, yet not because he seems afraid to fly again. On a long stretch of dusty road, he stops, sits outside his car and spits on the ground. The camera frame the spit in the sand, and Max's finger reaches down and rubs the saliva into the dirt and rubbing the mud between his thumb and forefinger. It is a mesmerizing moment, one that only deepens the confusion: "Who is this man? What is going on inside that head?" And just as quickly as the moment happened, Weir quickly cuts to Max driving down the road as he leans his head out the window in bliss.
Over time, we learn that Max's survival has wrenched him from his sense of self. Like an Etch-a-Sketch, he's been shaken and erased by the force of impact. He's been so transformed by the near-death experience that when he stops to meet an old friend for lunch in a diner, he munches without incident on strawberries despite his pal's reservations about his food allergy. When airline representatives offer to give Max a train ticket home, aware not only of the trauma a person would experience from flying again so soon and the intense fear of flying his wife says he had before the fateful flight, he cheerfully replies that he'd like to fly. First class, if you please.
Not much about Fearless makes sense. It's plot moves in fits; in fact, the weakest moments of the film directly concern the imposition of a narrative -- Tom Hulce's ambulance-chasing sleazeball of a lawyer drags down the movie with his frequent appearances, all of them revolving around ensuring bigger payouts in the corporate settlements. No, the film works as an appropriately scrambled, contradictory, inexplicable meditation on death, survival, grief and coping. That scene with Max and his friend in the diner exists as pure exposition, establishing pieces of Max's background and the matter of his supposed strawberry allergy, yet Bridges and Debra Monk overcome it with unspoken humanity that emanates from them and break the dialogue from its strict boundaries.
Bridges does this the entire film. An actor so at home in any role that some have accused him of doing the same thing over and over despite the vast range of his work, Bridges uses Max Klein to demonstrate just how unique he has been before and since by combining the disparate elements of his work into a single role. He mixes the intensity of his early work, the rakish allure of his double-take face (which looks so unconventional that you turn back for a second look and find that he is gorgeous), the Zen-like calm of his later work starting most famously with the Dude, the sinister streak of his rare but effective villainous roles, even the alien remove of Starman. Only Bridges could have so many elements (and more) in his bag of tricks, and only Bridges could somehow throw them all together and still make it look so goddamn effortless.
Shaken into fearlessness by the crash, Max tests his invulnerability, walking across a bustling street after being lured by a blinding, glorious light and laughing in the face of God for emerging unscathed. "You can't kill me!" he screams, not in anger but jubilation. "You want to kill me but you can't!" But his behavior takes on not so much a suicidal recklessness as a super-sanity, entering a plane of existence above that of mankind. A look of eerie calm often passes over Bridges' face, whether in the flashbacks of his moment of epiphany during the crash or in his detached dealings with humanity afterward. I was reminded of that horrifying look of drug-induced contentment that ended Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America, De Niro's haunting smile communicating practically everything but happiness.
Bridges, though immediately completely human, speaks as if projecting beyond those with whom he interacts: when taken to meet another survivor, he launches into a monologue about seeing his father die as a young man. In context, it's nearly as unimportant as Alison's airing of grievances to Max back when he ate with her at the diner, but Bridges spins the yarn like a man who says things as they come to him, unconcerned with interaction and how a perceived normal conversation should go. Wherever Max goes, he walks with head forward, as if the heightened connection of his senses with the world compel his body to follow along.
That remove interferes with Max's family life, and soon his calm gives way to an unbearable arrogance. Not only has Max been thrust into a new viewpoint, he knows it and hangs his advanced knowledge over his family's head. His wife, Laura (Isabella Rossellini), and son Jonah (Spencer Vrooman) try to understand what Max is going through, but he callously tells his wife that she can never share in what he is feeling. Later, he throws away his son's video game console because it gives him the false feeling of death and rebirth. Max got a do-over, but he actually experienced death; Jonah will get nothing from his game. When Max's attention wanders to that survivor he visited earlier, his attraction to her is not the arc of a tangled romance but something far more complicated.
As great as Bridges' performance is, and it is almost certainly the finest in a long and distinguished career, one at least expected some level of excellence from our greatest living actor. But Rosie Perez's performance as Carla, the survivor who blames herself for her baby's death, is so wholly unexpected, so out of left field, that the considerable emotional weight of her performance is exacerbated by the sheer surprise of it. If Max exists at one extreme of the reaction to a traumatic event, that of liberated euphoria, Carla lies at the other: for months, she does not even leave her bed, hoping that if she just stays inside long enough she'll die. When Max comes around and informs her that she can't die because they're already dead, she resists him but starts to open up. If Bridges pours his innate, effortless humanity into a man outside it, Perez has never felt more like a person on-screen. Just as Max has his noble traits and his loathsome qualities, Carla has the contradictions and frustrating aspects that make her well-rounded, and Perez commands the role.
Nothing summarizes the power of her performance than a scene near the end when she finally comes clean to Max about how and why she feels guilty for living when her child died, and her confessional takes on a religious property when the outpouring of grief, self-loathing and shame culminates in a frenzied repetition of Hail Marys so intense and heartrending that Jeff Bridges, an actor who at all times inhabits his characters, breaks for an infinitesimal moment, the look of panic on Max's face morphing into awe, a legend recognizing the skill of someone who, even if just for a scene, completely showed him up.
The bond between Max and Carla cannot be easily explained because it ardently refuses to fit into neat definition. An affair nearly arises between them, but even when Max speaks of his overwhelming love for Carla and steals a kiss, there is never the hint of romantic love. They merely share the bond Max cruelly tells his wife he cannot have with her, that of people who have "passed through death" and come out the other side. Roger Ebert wrote that Carla and Laura are not rivals for Max's "heart, but for his soul," but I do not even think they are rivals in that regard. Carla does not realize what effect she has on Max, aware only that his presence helps her, especially when he resorts to an improvised form of extreme therapy to prove her lack of culpability in her son's death. But Max also relies on her to maintain his isolation from his old life, and until Carla can live without Max's safety net, he cannot live without hers.
If Fearless can be unwieldy, that is at least partially because it has so much going on. I cannot hope to even write down all that I noticed on a first watch, much less all the details that can only come with repeat viewings. Weir long ago sold me on his capacity for big cinema with his work on Gallipoli and Master and Commander, and that bird's eye view of the plane wreckage at the beginning and his masterful handling of the flashbacks on the plane display that aspect of his talent handily. But it's the minor stuff here, the extraneous shots and even scenes that paint a more complete portrait of humanity. As Max wades through the crash site, a shot of a wine bottle cuts to a horrifying look at the charred and decapitated corpse of Max's partner, an unspoken lament at the randomness of it all that can leave meaningless trinkets unscathed and human beings so awfully mangled. Weir uses the business partner's widow (Deidre O'Connell) to muddy the moral high ground Max takes with his refusal to pursue the settlement case any more than he has to, and her brief appearances not only help justifying Hulce's intruding performance but complicate stereotypical reactions to a tragedy. Yes, she's trying to make money off the event, but not for the same callous, greedy reasoning as Carla's husband (Benicio del Toro). One look in her eyes and not even Max can judge her any longer.
I'm not even going to bother soft-pedaling the film's flaws by saying "It's not a perfect movie, but..." Of course it isn't: it's a movie. And what's more, it's a movie about an emotional journey, one in which the narrative takes absurd leaps in order to better visualize the philosophical and emotional power of the movie. The work of Hieronymus Bosch features at one point, and the final, more subjective flashback clearly incorporates elements of Bosch's Ascent into the Empyrean. Bosch, like Flannery O'Connor, has always represented, to me, the good and bad of personal faith: he painted visions of the diving beauty of grace, but also of the twisted tortures awaiting those found unworthy. Fearless has the same ambition of scope, highlighting the man's selflessness and selfishness in equal order. Anchored by career-best performances by its two principal players, one of whom has enough to make seven careers and the other who completely matched her co-star, Fearless could perhaps use some trimming but makes magic even of the most technically unnecessary scenes. No film this good, featuring actors this well-known, should have found its way so quickly to obscurity, but when its overdue reevaluation comes around, Fearless will look less like a unique blockbuster but a large-scale philosophical poem that could be tied more readily to The Limey and L'Intrus than other airplane disaster movies.