The drug-addled urban paranoia of Hubert Selby Jr. (“Last Exit to Brooklyn,” “Requiem for a Dream” — but here not starting from his own novel) gets transposed to the flatlands of Wisconsin and Montana with intriguing results in “Fear X,” a supremely elegant, meditative thriller scripted by Selby and Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn (“Pusher,” “Bleeder”). Taking its time and making few concessions to genre expectations, pic, Refn’s English-lingo debut, is hardly a commercial attraction, but could perform modestly in the hands of the right arthouse distribs given the director’s cult following and the superb performances of stars John Turturro and James Remar.
“Fear X” suggests a more abstract “Memento” by way of “Blow-Up,” “Blow Out,” “The Conversation” and other movies about an increasingly obsessive quest for an increasingly unknowable absolute. Story follows Wisconsin security guard Harry Cain (John Turturro) as he tries to piece together the identity of his late wife’s murderer. Apparently an innocent bystander to a planned hit gone awry, Harry’s wife was one of two people gunned down in the parking lot of a shopping mall — the same mall where Harry happens to be employed. Unable to cope with his feelings of guilt (and with the apparent disinterest of the police in solving the case), Harry decides to take the investigation into his own hands.
This involves an exhaustive study of the black-and-white surveillance videos from the mall, documenting the hours leading up to his wife’s death from a dozen or so different angles, endlessly rewinding, enhancing and replaying the footage. The killing itself exists on one of these tapes (or does it?), but so grainy and diffuse and framed to a far corner of the screen you can’t quite make out the details.
But truth is much too slippery to let itself get pinned down by audio-visual records. It continually wriggles out of Harry’s grasp, leading him on a pursuit from Wisconsin into Montana and on to the trail of a decorated local cop (James Remar, whose wearied face seems tattooed with the worry of unforgivable wrongs) and his wife (Deborah Kara Unger), who may have crucial information about Harry’s case. Every time Harry thinks he has a handle on things, the solution slithers away from him. Like Jack Nicholson’s retired cop searching for the “real” killer in “The Pledge,” Harry has crossed the line where the quest itself becomes more important than the answer. The result is one of Turturro’s most fascinating, quietly intense performances.
The cat-and-mouse game that ensues between Turturro and Remar is a decidedly woozy one, in which Refn and Selby gradually strip away the token genre elements until the film begins to function on an almost purely psychological level, leaving us uncertain as to who exactly is the cat and who the mouse. While this shift may inhibit “Fear X” from satisfying on pure thriller terms, it emboldens the film with a kind of freedom few thrillers possess. (Still, viewers swept up in this game will likely be disappointed when pic makes a halfhearted effort at “explaining” itself near the end.)
Nevertheless, Refn does well at manufacturing suspense, infusing the film with such striking stillness that a shadow brushing by a window and an unexpected knock at the door take on unexpected powers to upset. Shooting for the first time in North America (Canada stands in for the Midwest, adding to pic’s anywhere/nowhere feel) with the aid of d.p. Larry Smith (“Eyes Wide Shut”), Refn brings a European’s eye to Big Sky country, making the landscape seem even bigger and more menacing. Even the interiors are vast and echoey — there are virtually no extras or background action — with people and objects half-obscured, Polanski-style, behind oddly placed walls and doors. And there’s a Kubrick-like creepy chilliness to the color-coordinated hotel corridors.