Thirty years ago today, a remarkable, if under-heralded, film was released: Peter Weir’s Fearless.
Max Klein (Jeff Bridges) wanders through a cornfield. He holds a baby wrapped in a blanket in one arm while holding the hand of a young boy. Other figures walk among the cornstalks. We finally get a sense of what has happened when we see the fuselage of an airplane in pieces. First responders rush to these people emerging from the fields. Max wanders off, spending a few days at a motel alone. FAA investigators find him, wanting to make sure of his condition. Physically Max is fine miraculously; he is unscarred except for a tiny wound on his side. But, inside, there is turmoil brewing. Max had a profound experience on the plane as it was free-falling, and other survivors remember him as a comforting presence leading them to safety. He begins to struggle with what it means to walk away fine while others lose so much. It worsens when Max is encouraged by a shady lawyer (Tom Hulce) to lie in his testimony to help out victims’ families.
Fearless is one of Weir’s most visually rich films, a marked shift from work he’d done in prior years (Green Card, Dead Poets Society). It shares a lot of thematic links with films like Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Last Wave in that it is about an individual facing a monolithic shift to their worldview. The film’s text is the work of novelist & screenwriter Rafael Yglesias. Yglesias was in a car accident where his vehicle was flipped over multiple times, yet he walked away unharmed. The event triggered a massive chain in the man’s thinking, and he became fascinated with other people who had been through the same experience. He became most interested in the emotions felt in the space between realizing a traumatic, possibly deadly event is about to happen and the impact. What goes through a person’s head in those few seconds or minutes.
Around this time, Peter Weir was explicitly asking for scripts considered “broken” by film executives & studios. He started meeting only with studio heads or the writers themselves, leading to Fearless. The brokenness Weir found in the script was that it was essentially two films in one. The first quarter is about a man confronting the reality of his own death. However, that transitions into a narrative on what it means to be a survivor. To fix this, Weir restructured the first 25% of the film to act as flashbacks to what happened in the airplane. This means the film’s grand finale cuts between Max having a second near-death experience and his memories of what happened on the plane. These moments are crucial to understanding Max’s head, and by holding them back, Weir makes the film a sort of existential detective story.
The core arc for Max is centered around, as the title implies, fear. Max is someone pre-crash who allowed fear to be the key motivator in his life. He shied away from risk out of fear. The result was an incredibly comfortable, happy life, but the accident reveals to him a sense of deep-seated dissatisfaction. The encounters with the crooked lawyer and his conversations with Carla (Rosie Perez), a mother who lost her infant son in the accident, bring to the surface constant anger. The idea of continuing to live inauthentically sickens the man, and he chooses to no longer lie, telling the truth no matter how harshly the person on the receiving end takes it. He tells his wife (Isabella Rossellini) that he doesn’t feel a connection between them. Max centers on the accident and how he’s become a person she’s just not capable of understanding any longer. The only way he can feel alive is to brush up against death, to be reminded he is still a tangible person in the world.
Carla proves to be a foil to Max. Her takeaway from the accident and the death of her child is complete emotional paralysis. The pain she feels inside has reached levels of torture, and she makes it to the end of each day by telling herself the pain her child felt in death was far greater. While the film may appear to touch on supernatural elements on the surface, it is, in fact, a profoundly psychological movie dealing with post-traumatic stress and how different people process it based on their personal experiences. Max’s PTSD actually started kicking in as the plane was falling; he shunts his fear away and begins comforting those he can on the plane. He is able to deny his own fear by transforming his internal paradigm of thinking. He places himself in a mental space few people ever experience, what you could call “pure living,” an embrace of everything. The problem with his newfound honesty is that it does a lot of harm to people he loves. The “lack of fear” is really his coping mechanism to hold back the pain, a different version of what Carla is putting herself through. Max refuses to admit he needs support because he’s convinced himself he is beyond anything that can hurt him.
Few films come out of Hollywood that tackles such expansive, universal concepts. Weir has done something quite daunting to make a film that explores the very nature of our existence, and he manages to pull it off. Weir became interested in the concept of “filming souls” while in pre-production for Fearless; he meant that the barrier between the camera and subject is removed. In the way he directed the picture, Weir attempted to break his actors’ barriers down, having them get to the rawest of the character’s feelings and film them as if there was no movie being made. This was them in the skins of these people living these lives. Faces are vital to what makes Fearless work, and numerous close-ups focus on people reacting & processing emotions. Few movies of the last 30 years deliver such a beautiful and moving portrayal of grief, loss, joy, and life. Fearless is a film deserving of rediscovery and a jewel in Weir’s crown.