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October 17, 2007 |

By Phillip Stephens | Underappreciated Gems | October 17, 2007 |

Fearless begins in the wake of cataclysm: Max Klein (Jeff Bridges) is seen pushing his way through a cornfield, one arm cradling an infant, the other pulling along a bewildered young boy. Smoke is thick in the air and the characters are mussed and bloody. Only when the camera pulls back and away do we really comprehend the terrible scene we’re seeing — a massive airplane crash. And what a horrible thing it is to behold: mounds of rent earth, smoldering wreckage, twisted metal, and, somehow most awful of all, piles and piles of clothing — the blasted remains of a hundred little suitcases. Both the audience who witnesses this and the characters that inhabit it, both the mangled victims and the hordes of rescue workers, are palsied by the devastation; only Max is temperate in the midst of this chaos.

Weaving his way through the cornstalks and the wreckage, Max hands the infant off to its horror-struck mother, eliminating her terror and grief as easily as swatting a fly. When a paramedic asks him, a bit baffled, if he was in the crash he says, “No,” smiles, and then simply leaves the scene, an act so casual it’s unthinkable. This powerfully ambivalent sequence of events is the perfect introduction to Peter Weir’s portrait of life after tragedy, the power and ambivalence of fear.

Max leaves the life-altering devastation in a kind of trance, driven slightly mad by this newfound lack of fear; he walks through traffic, screams hysterically for no reason, and makes decisions on random lunatic whims; he’s galvanized by … by what? Life itself? At times it seems like Max has achieved a kind of nirvana, a perfect spiritual reconciliation that everyone around him is pitiably incapable of (something Lester Burnham would feel in American Beauty), and it allows him to do some incredible things, unbound as he is from casual or abstract inhibitions. It’s no surprise that many of the other survivors revere him, the only calm and poised man in their sea of disorder. His family, however, including wife Laura (Isabella Rossellini), who is torn between awe and frustration, and psychologist Dr. Perlman (John Turturro), hired to help the crash victims, are troubled by Max’s behavior.

At Perlman’s behest, Max reaches out to a fellow survivor who’s also been irrevocably changed by the crash, Carla Rodrigo (Rosie Perez, who delivers a surprisingly moving, sedate performance given her infamous histrionic reputation from the 90s). If Max’s life is characterized by a lack of fear, Carla’s, shattered by the loss of her infant son on the plane, consists of nothing but. Questions of class add a troubling dimension to Max’s newfound hysteria of confidence. After all, his wealth and status as an architect give him the financial freedom to wallow in this state of spiritual convolution; Carla has to contend with her sorrow and figure out how to pay the bills, something that gives her grief a terrible irony. But Max’s dharmic calm is good medicine; he somehow reaches past her pain and shows her that there is life after tragedy.

But Max’s own life seems to belie such a fix. The self-actualization his absence of fear has brought him may bring benevolence to some, but it destroys his family; he neglects his son and can no longer connect with his wife. And Max is perfectly willing to accept this: if his Enlightenment (if that’s what it is) costs him his family, then so be it. This too gives the peace he’s found a disturbing, enigmatic dimension — a presence of mind that is, by turns, both selfless and selfish.

Weir’s quiet, unsentimental approach to Fearless after a string of formulaic commercial successes is remarkable in that it eschews easy answers, something rare at the time and almost unheard of today. He lets Max’s madness play out with natural ambivalence, honoring every side of the argument and letting us decide for ourselves whether his transformation is apotheosis or cruel solipsism, or both. Bridges, too, gives the performance of a lifetime (from an already impressive body of work), perfectly approximating the polarities of spiritual freedom, while Rossellini, Perez, and Turturro all support the tragedy with appropriate sadness. The actual plane crash, the event around which everything in the film turns, is only shown as a flashback in the final 15 minutes, serving as the perfect climax. Weir puts to celluloid one of the most powerful catharses of recent memory, and certainly the most awe-inspiring portrait of an airliner crash. The plane just quietly, terribly begins to fly apart in an eerie, trancelike state, as Max experiences his revelation and begins to walk among the doomed, weeping passengers. It’s heartbreaking. An oft-forgotten and strangely unappreciated gem, Fearless was a most welcome anomaly: an emotionally complex, genuinely moving, insightful portrait of adult anguish from a major director and studio.

Phillip Stephens is the lead critic for Pajiba. He lives in Fayetteville, AR.

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