As a mainstream film about profound issues and emotions, “Fearless” will deeply affect some viewers who will personally respond to its serious consideration of mortality in a way that combines the psychological, mystical and spiritual. Others, however, will find that Peter Weir’s distinctive study of the aftermath of a plane crash breaks apart from undue symbolism and pretension. Warner Bros. appears to be aiming this away from an arthouse niche, and with some top reviews it could get good mileage from discriminating general audiences.
In one of his best performances, Jeff Bridges portrays Max Klein, a man who, after walking away from a plane crash that kills his business partner and many other passengers, enters an exalted state in which he feels that he has “passed through death” and believes that nothing can harm him. The crash, he says, is “the best thing that ever happened me,” and he is suddenly afraid of nothing and compelled to speak bluntly on every subject.
Weir’s handling of the six-minute opening sequence is haunting, with Bridges emerging from a Central California cornfield, handing a baby to its hysterical mother, then wandering away from the smoking chaos.
After an odd visit with a childhood friend, he defies expectations by insisting upon flying home to San Francisco, where the architect is written up as a heroic good Samaritan who saved many lives. His new distracted, brutally honest air is disturbing to his ballet teacher wife Laura (Isabella Rossellini), but things could be far worse.
Three months later, a shrink who specializes in group therapy for accident victims (John Turturro) brings Max together with Carla (Rosie Perez), a conventionally religious Catholic who still blames herself for the death of her young son in the crash. Aside from having been on the plane, the two have nothing in common, but they spend a lot of time together, and Max abruptly announces to his wife that he feels an overwhelming love for Carla.
This is where the film becomes muddled, although despite his odd behavior, Max has a hold on audience interest from the outset.
Symbolism begins intruding when it’s evident that Max was injured on his side in the same place as Jesus. Max gets weirder and weirder, and the film itself begins to feel like therapy. Rafael Yglesias’ script is impeded in its grand intention of weighing attitudes toward mortality by its concentration on the strange specifics of one odd couple’s particular situation.
After a long murky stretch, pic regains momentum and clarity toward the end when Max, finally going off the deep end as he breaks through his denial, returns from the edge by finally envisioning the plane crash. Presentation of this as horrifying glimpses of the plane breaking apart is a great example of impressionistic montage and is as cathartic for the audience after the wearying midsection as it is supposed to be for Max.
Bridges is fine, especially in the ethereal early moments, and manages throughout to convey an altered state of mind that rivets the viewer. As his confused wife, who tries to proceed cautiously with the marriage, Rossellini gives by far the best performance of her uneven career. As interest in the Max-Carla interaction wanes, attention increasingly turns to the wife, and Rossellini rewards it with sensitive, impassioned work. Perez, unfortunately, comes off as grating.
Film is beautifully made in all respects. Weir handles certain scenes with exceptional grace. Allen Daviau’s lensing has a lovely clarity, and the soundtrack is outstanding — dense and rich.