Fear X. 2003. Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. Screenplay by Refn & Hubert Selby Jr.
Starring John Turturro, Deborah Kara Unger, Stephen Eric McIntyre, William Allen Young, Gene Davis, Mark Houghton, Jacquline Ramel, James Remar, Nadia Litz, Amanda Ooms, Liv Corfixen, & Frank Adamson. Moviehouse Entertainment/Det Danske Filminstitut/Fear X Ltd.
Rated PG-13. 91 minutes.
This is one hell of an interesting film, for a whole host of reasons. First of all, Nicolas Winding Refn is a director-writer whom I find incredible, one of the closest filmmakers currently making movies that has sensibilities of some of my favourite old school directors. Refn continually proves he’s got vision, willing each subsequent project to be weirder and wilder than the one it follows. Secondly, John Turturro is a talented character actor. He is often recognized for his talent, just never recognized enough. Far as I’m concerned he should be in many more films, as well as even better calibre films than some of the projects he’s been in. Because regardless of what the movie is, Turturro is sure to provide an odd thrill.
Fear X rots the gut of some viewers because it defies explanation. Moreover, Refn himself has all but thrust his middle finger at the audience; not in profanity but more as a challenge. He says “what the fuck is an ending” in response to those turned off by lack of resolution. I guess the same people worried about that have a ton of trouble with stuff from David Lynch, or someone even more mad like Andrzej Żuławski, both of whose films usually say ‘fuck meaning’ – not in that there is NO meaning, rather in the sense of being hard to pin down with a singular explanatory idea/sentence.
In the vein of Lynchian storytelling, Refn, along with all the dialogue written by Hubert Selby Jr (author of Requiem for a Dream and Last Exit to Brooklyn), draws us into the fever dream of a man grieving terribly for his wife after her inexplicable murder. The story is labyrinthine and coils around you until there’s a feeling of tension that won’t let go, much like that which grips the protagonist. Never do we know for sure the final answer. We are left to hypothesize on our own, to cobble together the bits Refn and Selby offer.
What we make of this journey is ours.
And ours alone.
Psychological films can get boring if they’re not handled with some sort of technique or style which speaks to those elements. Refn is undoubtedly influenced heavily by Stanley Kubrick. This shows often in many of his works post-Pusher era. It’s particularly prevalent here in the psychological aspect of the journey Harry (Turturro) takes to find out the truth behind what happened to his wife. Some of the symmetrical frames and zooms that Refn uses throughout the film are the child of Kubrick’s directorial technique. None of it is robbery. It is pure and plain homage to a master whom Refn so clearly idolizes. Also, the Lynchian influence is not only in the film’s plot.
Often times the cinematography here reminds me of Blue Velvet in particular with its shadowy interiors, colourful yet dark and ominous, so rich and vibrant while simultaneously feeling entrenched in black, negative spaces. Cinematographer Larry Smith has gone on to work with Refn on a couple other pictures, this being only his second feature film credit; impressive to say the least, as the work here is impeccable from by eye. He and Refn cultivate an unsettling atmosphere that keeps you right in the paranoid mindset of Harry, at the center of a life marred by doubt and unresolved questions, never far from the bent reality of nightmares.
Add into the atmosphere a bit of Brian Eno, and things get all the more interesting. He works alongside Dean Landon and J. Peter Schwalm to create an ambient layer of sound that hovers around every last scene like a ghostly presence. The score is foreboding, it makes more unsure than we already are about what lies beyond the peripherals of Harry’s vision, both figuratively and literally. Most of all, the music and sound design alike is powerful in its quietude just like the central performance from Turturro.
Turturro is the reason Fear X is able to stay so emotionally credible. His performance as Harry is such a subtle one that you never find it hard to empathize with him. Watching his descent into further paranoia as the plot wears on becomes a revelation. Much like his character from Barton Fink, Harry is sort of dropped into an environment that’s totally foreign to him, where nothing makes sense only what he’s able to glean from his own thought process. In a way, the character is similar to the audience in that we’re left to our own devices, as Harry must piece together the faint bits of clues without any explanations or answers. Turturro’s abilities as a character actor are on display throughout our witnessing Harry nearly crumble to nothing in front of our eyes, slipping down a rabbit hole of paranoid fear.
Can’t not mention James Remar. He does a fantastic job with his role. There are many places he turns up in film and television which surprise me, and this movie may take the cake. Regardless, he gives a top notch performance here as a cop with a guilty conscience, exacerbated by the arrival of Harry in his jurisdiction. From moment one, Remar fascinates with his portrayal of Peter and really makes his character honest, laying bare the remorse, or maybe lack thereof, in a killer.
Fear X is not on my top list of Best Nicolas Winding Refn. At the same time, it is still a remarkable work of cinema. Many pore this film over looking for exact clues, artefacts within the script and the dialogue and the particular events or down to the shots where they’ll say “Oh here it is; the answer”— except that’s not the point.
This film is about fear and paranoia. It is about the dangerous path we find ourselves on when the answers are not able to fit inside a tiny, pre-packaged box, when our idealism runs afoul in a world not built for the idealistic. So within the intentions of the film itself, I believe there was always meant to be an open end to the questions being confronted. I have my ideas about the concrete elements that might make up a nice, neat little package in which Fear X could slot itself.
But the grey area feeling of the movie is what appeals to me. The fear of the title, the paranoia of the protagonist, these are what drive me towards feeling Refn did something excellent here. No matter how I look at things, this is an underrated mystery-thriller with a massively engaging performance out of Turturro.