An eerie, insinuating tale of urban dread and mental breakdown, “Fever” reps an impressively sophisticated directorial follow-up to his 1993 comedy “Freaked” by Alex Winter, the actor who co-starred with Keanu Reeves in the “Bill & Ted” films. Telling of a lonely young painter whose grip on the world is threatened by lethal doings in his New York apartment building, Winter employs a visual palette that itself is quite painterly, creating an arresting succession of images and atmospheric set pieces that cast a vivid, expressionistic spell. Though the drama’s progress doesn’t fully deliver on its intriguing premise, pic’s ambitiousness and stylistic bravado should make it a festival favorite, with additional arthouse potential linked to strong reviews.
Though it has elements of a thriller, pic’s story, written by Winter, is more of a moody psychological study a la Polanski’s “Repulsion.” When first seen, Nick Parker (Henry Thomas) is exchanging barbs with Sidney (Sandor Tecsy), the obnoxious landlord of the seedy building where he lives.
Teaching art by day at a local YMCA, Nick spends his nights trying to paint, a routine interrupted one evening by noises from above. The cause turns out to be Will (David O’Hara), an interloper who exudes menace and cares nothing for Nick’s claims that Sidney promised to avoid renting the room over his.
Not long after, Sidney is found brutally murdered in his apartment, and Nick tells the investigating detective (Bill Duke) of an argument he witnessed between the landlord and a drunken evictee (John Tracy). When Nick voices the same suspicions to Will, though, his mysterious, unwanted neighbor appears more malevolent than ever, brandishing a knife and saying the old drunk didn’t have the strength to commit such a savage slashing.
Plagued by nightmares and fevers that seem only to be exacerbated by contact with his middle-class family who live in a more comfortable section of Brooklyn, Nick begins to act in ways that make others doubt his stability and that ultimately raise the question of whether he is capable of the murderous rage he has imputed to others.
While the climactic twists of Winter’s tale may be anticipated well before they arrive, his writing is polished. Pic’s strongest suit, however, is unquestionably its captivating style, including Col Anderson’s imaginative sound design but most especially its visual components.
Winter’s tech collaborators do superb work across the board. Joe DeSalvo’s sumptuous lensing, which leans so heavily on grays as to seem almost colorless at times, meshes beautifully with Mark Ricker’s ingenious sets and Azam Kung’s costumes.
Pic’s air of intelligence and sharp craftsmanship extend to its performances. Thomas delivers an appealing, finely shaded turn in a role that demands a careful blend of tones, and he receives top-notch support from the forceful work of O’Hara and Duke.