Rosie Perez and Jeff Bridges in 1993's "Fearless."

Fearless November 8, 2021

DIRECTED BY

Peter Weir

STARRING

Jeff Bridges
Isabella Rossellini
Rosie Perez
Tom Hulce
John Turturro

Benicio Del Toro

 

RATED

R

RELEASED IN

1993

 

RUNNING TIME

2 Hrs., 2 Mins.

A

baby, a boy, and a man emerge from a cornfield, dazed. This trio, a sudden swerve of the camera reveals, has just been burped out by a passenger plane, itself ripped into chunks and sprinkled across some farmland after an unexpected crash. We won’t know what becomes of the baby, who is returned to his mother; we’ll catch up later here and there with the boy, who is reunited with his family. The focus of

Fearless (1993), Peter Weir’s moving existential drama, gravitates mostly to the man — a San Francisco-based architect named Max (Jeff Bridges, giving one of his best performances) — and his difficulty assimilating back into everyday life post-accident, of which he was a rare survivor. When he looks over himself in the mirror for the first time after the crash, it’s like he’s looking at an alien; he has to remind himself that he isn’t dead. 

 

Max’s bewilderment remains after a few days, then weeks, then months. Max’s wife (Isabella Rosselini) and young son notice it’s getting harder and harder to get through to him; he won’t even speak at dinner, his brain too abuzz. Max becomes more and more fixated on a belief that he’s become invincible somehow. It’s a conviction strengthened by how he has, since the accident, apparently overcome a strawberry allergy once so severe that even a tickle of the fruit’s furry exterior on his lip could slam his throat shut. As he empties a bowl full of strawberries over pancakes after driving down the highway pushing 100 with his eyes closed, Max has never felt more alive or dead. 
   

After a few months of this (a continued devotion to dare-devilling over responsibility), the airline’s staff psychiatrist, Dr. Perlman (John Turturro), who’s been checking in on all the few survivors intermittently, notices that it’s just Max and one other person — a young mother named Carla (a great, Oscar-nominated Rosie Perez) who lost the infant son she was holding when the plane collided with Earth — are still stuck in the shocked headspace they were thrust into moments after the crash. Whereas Max has become over-confident, high off the dreamlike feeling that he’s stuck between life and cheated death, Carla is so inconsolable that she almost never speaks. She only leaves her tomb of a bedroom to attend church services. Perlman thinks it could benefit Max and Carla to link up; maybe their emotional extremes could even the other person out. There’s some risk for a clash, though: Carla’s devout religiosity is at odds with Max’s atheism, which began when his dad, by all accounts a good and kind person, dropped dead in front of him when he was a kid. There’s no way God would randomly snatch the life away from a man like that, Max concluded back then. 

 

Thankfully there's mostly no clashing; the bond that forms between “one crash freak to another,” as Max puts it, is ultimately touching. There are some moments when we think the connection will turn romantic. Max’s wife, feeling increasingly pushed away by her husband, understandably worries. (There’s a terrifically crafted scene toward the end of the movie where she and Carla sit down alone, the latter hoping to clear the air about what goes on during their sometimes very-long outings.) But that it doesn’t — these people won’t be stealing each other’s hearts because they’re subconsciously preoccupied with helping restore the other’s fractured soul — is one of many refreshing shows of how the film, written by Rafael Yglesias from his book of the same name, avoids easy dramatic checkpoints or resorting to hackneyed means of achieving inner peace for the characters.

 

Fearless measuredly considers the messiness of reincorporating oneself into humdrum daily life after enduring the unthinkable, and how impossible it can be to live satisfactorily when almost everyone around you is sympathetic to your plight up until they have decided that enough time has passed for you to move on. There really isn’t such a thing as finding complete closure after all; the closest realistic equivalent is getting to a point where a past calamity isn’t always at the front and center of one’s mind. Yglesias details this journey for Max and Carla sympathetically. But his approach isn't so insular that we can’t see anything else as clearly as these characters. He makes sure the people closest to them are not rendered one-note nags nearly begging their loved ones to get over the crash, but pained people themselves stumbling, confounded about how to best be supportive without minimizing their own needs. 

 

I like Fearless’ ending in part because it soars, and is appropriately climactic, while staying aware that the movie doesn’t need a neat resolution — and honestly shouldn’t have one — to be effective. It’s optimistic for what the future holds. But it’s wisely not so declarative that it suggests that what has been endured has been sealed away for now, that the aftereffects of tragedy can efficiently be hidden away at all. Fearless is one of the finest of all movies about grief I’ve seen. Its unusual emotional lucidity is one factor. But even more stirring is that it’s as much truthful (or is at least concerned with being truthful) about grief’s lack of reliable direction. It thoughtfully evokes how working through it can feel like being thrown into the middle of a river in the pitch dark with no guidance. You can either stay put or try to swim to some nearby shore. One option is more productive than the other; Fearless never downplays how difficult it can be to fight off the tug of the undercurrent. A-