Emerging from the battered remnants of a destroyed corn-field, leading a flock of shell-shocked survivors, Jeff Bridges’ Max Klein immediately establishes the tone of intriguing ambiguity that comes to define Peter Weir’s brilliant 1993 film Fearless. One of the few physically unscathed survivors from a truly horrific plane crash, Bridges’ Klein leaves the carnage with his personality profoundly altered. Much to the chagrin of his wife (played by Isabella Rossellini), he also finds himself incapable of re-integrating himself back into his normal life.
Klein has lost his fear of death. He begins behaving erratically, tempting fate by eating strawberries (food that he was deathly allergic to when he was younger) and playing chicken with oncoming traffic. He seems to delight in walking the fine line between life and death. He finds elation through potential destruction. He soon finds direction in his new life through another traumatized survivor, Carla Rodrigo (played by Rosie Perez in an Oscar nominated role). Rodrigo can’t find the will to live due to her belief that she could have saved her infant son during the plane crash.
The relationship that develops between Rodrigo and Klein is where Weir’s film fleshes out its theme of fear being one of the most potent forces controlling human potential. However, this theme is really only important if one is to interpret Fearless in a literal manner. This literal perspective is given voice through John Turturro’s brief appearance as a psychiatrist hired by the airline to provide therapy to the crash survivors. He believes that Klein’s devil-may-care attitude towards death is simply a side-effect of PTSD.
As mentioned, probably one of the most riveting aspects of Fearless is the ambiguity inherent to the Max Klein character. Is Klein simply experiencing a bout of PTSD? Is he a modern-day reworking of the Jesus Christ myth? Is he a man who must accept death to provide salvation to others? Or, as the eloquent script by Rafael Yglesias (working off his original novel) suggests, has Klein now transitioned into a different type of human being, a “ghost” that can’t be hurt because he “died already?”
Fearless works beautifully because it doesn’t attempt to come up with a concrete answer. Instead, it lets the story simply pose these questions and allows viewers to draw their own conclusions. Weir’s ability to transfer Yglesias’ thematically-dense script is exemplary. He fills his movie with rich, nuanced and complex scenes which evocatively explore Klein’s fragmented psychology (although the whole strawberry metaphor may be a bit heavy-handed).
The skill displayed is a testament to Weir being a world-class filmmaker. Fearless is excellently paced, filled with recurring motifs (such as the film’s many shots of hands) and a disturbing use of music that adds great intensity to scenes of Klein repeatedly testing fate. Weir’s staging of the actual plane crash easily stands as one of the most upsetting disaster scenes in any film. The horror is juxtaposed however with a remarkable level of disarming, spiritual poignancy, which comes through the director’s harnessing of Henryk Gorecki’s Symphony #3 (Symphony of Sorrowful Songs).
In the central role Bridges never makes a wrong move. He turns in probably what is one of the most complicated male performances in modern cinematic history. His Max Klein is a man who repeatedly asserts the sublimity of his experience in the crash, yet seems oblivious to how the changes in his personality have been to the overall detriment of his family. On a basic level, Bridges’ work in Fearless is a great evocation of trauma. But his work is also deeper than that, more layered. His performance calls into question the nature of a human being’s relationship with a seemingly chaotic universe. It asks what happens to a human being once the normal circumstances which structure this relationship are removed. It’s a brilliant, disturbing work that calls for Bridges to firmly inhabit two distinct personalities, both of which he pulls of in a seemingly effortless fashion.
Playing a supporting yet equally important and intense part, Rosie Perez is absolutely convincing as Carla Rodrigo – a mother whose life is completely shattered through her experience during the crash. Perez’s Rodrigo is a character whose trauma seems to manifest itself in the opposite manner from Bridges’ Max Klein. While Klein’s experience in the crash seems to trigger a metamorphosis into being engaged with life in a vibrant almost ethereal way, the accident leaves Rodrigo completely incapacitated. This stagnation, which is exacerbated by a misguided belief that she could have done more to save her child, forms the core of the film’s storyline. The scenes involving Rodrigo working with Klein to process her grief are immensely powerful.
Love, death, fate, grief, and faith are all grappled with by the characters of Fearless. It is a film which eschews easy sentimentality or lazy humanism. Weir’s film, fueled by the great script of Yglesias and two enormously capable actors, is a lyrical ode to the fragility of our experience in a terrifying world. The film doesn’t attempt to offer answers in how to understand the experience of unthinkable human tragedy. Yet it is a powerful reminder of its existence, a beautiful portrait of two people attempting to deal with the aftermath when it suddenly arrives.