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Fear X

Fear X

By John Bleasdale • November 28th, 2013
Static Mass Rating: 3/5
LionsGate Films

Original release: April 4, 2003
Running time: 91 minutes

Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Writers: Hubert Selby Jr and Nicolas Winding Refn

Cast: John Turturro, James Remar

Fear X

Loss is something that caves you in. You lose all impetus, it creates stasis. Your values are radically reassigned and the world itself becomes deprived of meaning. The trauma of loss is often relegated to the back story of a character, especially in nourish crime pictures. An ex-wife, see the original Blade Runner voiceover, immediately marks the hero as emotionally mature (i.e. disillusioned), heterosexual and yet sexually available. A dead wife will give a darkened margin to a character, see the original Lethal Weapon. A trauma such as Jimmy Stewart’s Scottie Ferguson experiences in Vertigo can define that character from then on.

In Fear X, Nicholas Winding Refn explores loss. His film is drained of the narrative momentum that usually attend revenge drama. There is a mystery but the film belies its slightly pulpy title by taking the emotional reality of its main character seriously.

Harry Cain (John Turturro) is a man frozen in the depths of immediate grief. His wife was a victim of an apparently motiveless shooting, in which she and a police officer were both gunned down. Although apparently still vigorously investigating, the police themselves seem to have few immediate answers and they make it clear that Harry himself is being handled with something like suspicion, grilling him about his political beliefs, among other things. He spends a lot of his time staring into space, and dreaming visions of his wife. Is this a part of the normal grieving process, or is she trying to tell him something?

Harry continues to work in the local mall as a security guard, watching the shoppers intently but always with his mind on his murdered wife. A co-worker supplies him with video tapes from the security cameras – his wife was killed in the mall parking lot – and when he gets home, he studies them, taking photographs of anyone who looks suspicious and then blowing them up to add to his copious files and his spider web wall chart.

Fear X

Nicholas Winding Refn’s first English language film was a financial disaster, so much so that his own production company when bankrupt as a result. Having established himself as a leading Danish filmmaker with the beginning of what would become his lowlife epic Pusher trilogy (1996) and the amazing Bleeder (1999), Fear X shifted the scene to a wintery US landscape (actually filmed in Canada), a top class actor in John Turturro and even the cachet of a screenplay penned by Hubert Selby Jr., the cult novelist of Requiem For A Dream and Last Exit To Brooklyn. Although the story was rich in mittel-Europa paranoia of Franz Kafka, the sense of dread and the looming weight of dreams Refn channelled more through David Lynch, with his corridors that disappear into darkness, small domestic spaces which leak fear at their seams and societies in which men meet in rooms and plot violence.

Turturro plays with admirable restraint. His Harry is a man who is broken. He’s nothing more than his stare now, as he blankly uncomprehendingly tries to work out what has taken place, attempting to make sense of it via the intentness of his gaze. The mood is established in Harry’s home, an anaemic, neat living space where Harry doesn’t make much noise. Refn allows the story to unfold via various acts of seeing: Harry’s dream visions, his surveillance of the mall and his scrutiny of photographs and digital images. Harry’s never given a personality outside of the aftermath of his trauma. He is loss itself, an investigator whose tentative groping for truth, piecing together has none of the fury of an avenger. He’s a man who doesn’t even know what he’ll do with the truth when he gets it, as one of his few friends tells him.

Even now, in Refn’s first foray into American film, he’s not pandering to the expectations of the audience. This by rights should be a revenge thriller, with the protagonist at some point kicking Fear Xdown doors. However, the one scene of action involves Harry arresting an elderly man who’s shoplifted a cardigan: ‘I got a white, middle-aged male, he just took a cardigan and slipped it into his bag. Area A-91, over. … Stay on him. Here I go.’ The man’s subsequent arrest in front of his embarrassed wife seems a painfully comic parody of justice, with Harry handcuffing the man before leading him out of the shop. There isn’t going to be anything like that neatness and formality in Harry’s own quest.

A clue – a photograph – leads Harry to a small town where he will confront a policeman, Pete (James Remar), a celebrated member of the community with a family and a bad conscience. Everything in the town has a stilted Twin Peaks oddness – the prostitution ring at the hotel, the corrupt officials and even the local diner with its homely apple pie recommendations – but Refn doesn’t leaven his weird with whimsy and there’s a formal austerity to the film that achieves an effect which at times appears to be above the actual import of the story. In fact, as the film continues, its mood of danger doesn’t actually seem to be going anywhere and even the conspiracy is one which strangely swallows its own tale.

Given this, the studied ambiguity of the ending feels almost inevitable. Harry will never gain a satisfactory resolution, the damage is already done. As we’ve been with Harry throughout this then it only seems fitting that we too – as an audience – should share his uncertainty and disappointment.

Fear X

John Bleasdale

John Bleasdale

John Bleasdale is a writer based in Italy. He has published on films at various internet sites and his writing can be found, along with blog posts, collected at johnbleasdale.com.

He has also contributed chapters to the American Hollywood and American Independent volumes of the World Directory of Cinema: (Intellect), Terrence Malick: Films and Philosophy (Continuum) and World Film Locations: Venice (Intellect). You can also follow him on Twitter @drjonty.

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