Judge Mitchell Hattaway reviews this John Turturro thriller. Or does he?
Your nightmares are all around you.
I love David Lynch. I love Stanley Kubrick. I'm not so crazy about this Nicolas Winding Refn fella.
Facts of the Case
Harry Caine (John Turturro, Barton Fink) is obsessed with finding his wife's killer. Haunted by memories and hallucinations, Harry spends most of his time poring over surveillance tapes from the scene of the murder: the mall where he is employed as a security guard. The police officers working the case show Harry a blurry image of the killer's face taken from one of the surveillance tapes, but Harry says he doesn't recognize the man. A vision of his late wife leads Harry to an empty house in his neighborhood; once inside, he finds a strip of film, has it developed, and begins a quest to find the woman in one of the photographs. The search leads him to a small Montana town and a confrontation with the man who killed his wife. Or does it?
Bear with me for just a minute here. I hate or does it? as much as the next person—maybe even more. I'm not talking about or does it? in the sense of something that's ambiguous, open to debate/discussion, or thought provoking. I'm talking about or does it when it's used as a cop-out, as is the case with Fear X (I'm still not sure what that title means). Writer/director Nicolas Winding Refn (Pusher) and co-writer Hubert Selby, Jr. (Requiem for a Dream), make it halfway through their tale before they start pouring on all the is this really happening? nonsense, and when they start pouring it on, they pour it on thick.
The first act of the film deals strictly with Harry and his obsessive search for his wife's killer. That's all well and good (well, sorta, but we'll get to that later), but then they hit a wall and think they can solve their problems by pulling the rug out from under the audience. That's when we start getting zooms into the back of Harry's head, as if we're entering his mind. We get ominous motel corridors, stygian hallways, and rivers of blood. We get the image of a man's face struggling to break free of what appears to be some sort of womb. We get a five-minute, pseudo-psychedelic light show set to the music of Brian Eno. We meet the possible dark forces behind a possible shadowy conspiracy made up of vigilante cops. We're supposed to question everything that has come before. Is Harry nuts? Is it all in his head? Has he concocted these events as a way of finally coming to grips with his loss? This film might have worked had these more surreal elements been woven into the story from the beginning, but as presented, the more outlandish elements just seem to be a way for Refn and Selby to get out of the hole they've dug for themselves. Problem is they only end up with a bigger hole. I tried wrapping my brain around the plot several different ways, but it still didn't add up. I guess I couldn't come up with the right ratio of mumbo to jumbo.
The first half hour or so of the film is somewhat, but not totally, intriguing, thanks in large part to Turturro's performance and the sympathy he's able to generate. Once Harry gets to Montana, however, the focus shifts to a cop named Peter (James Remar, 2 Fast 2 Furious); Peter's wife, Kate (Deborah Kara Unger, The Game), is the woman in the photograph Harry has had developed. Harry drops out of the film while we get endless scenes of Kate trying to figure out what's going on and of Peter going to his superiors in the aforementioned conspiracy in an attempt to assure them that he has everything under control. (The most laughable moment of the film occurs at this point. The transition from a Harry-centric story to a Peter-centric one begins with a shot that pushes into a mural of an American flag and then dissolves into a shot of a grim-faced Peter in full dress uniform. Pretty subtle, huh?) What was mildly intriguing suddenly becomes dull and absurd, not to mention old hat. If there actually is a conspiracy, well, that's been done to death. If it's all in Harry's head, well, that's been done several times already—by filmmakers with real talent.
As told here, many elements of the story are lifted from the works of David Lynch, as is some of the actual visual realization of the story, with a great deal of Stanley Kubrick's techniques thrown in for good measure. I don't have a problem with artists being influenced by or paying homage to the work of others, but what Refn does here amounts to little more than theft. In all honesty, it looks to me as if Refn watched a Lynch film festival, followed it up with The Shining, went to bed, and started work on Fear X when he woke up the next morning. (I won't pick on Hubert Selby, Jr. He's dead, can't defend himself, and actually had some talent.) The film is full of the long, slow zooms that were a hallmark of Kubrick's work, and Refn also steals from Kubrick in how he chooses to isolate characters within a frame. That motel Harry stays at in Montana comes across as the Overlook from The Shining with some of the interior decorating performed by the people responsible for the Red Room from Twin Peaks. Peter's meeting with his bosses is reminiscent of the behind-the-scenes machinations from Mulholland Drive, and the shot composition in the scene is straight out of Jack Nicholson's job interview scene in The Shining. Hell, even the waitress in the diner bragging about the quality of the eatery's pie triggered something in my head. (I, know, I know—plenty of people order coffee and pie in diners. Given the nature of this film, though, I couldn't help but think about Agent Cooper.) There are also moments that recall Lost Highway and Blue Velvet, but there's no need to go into them, as I think you get the point.
Having said all of that, I think the real problem with Fear X is its glacial pace, which provides the viewer with plenty of time to think about the film's shortcomings. I can't remember the last time I saw so many sustained master shots or so little coverage in a film. Refn makes Billy Bob Thornton look like Michael Bay. Scenes drag on and on; the dialogue in any given scene is quickly dealt with, and then the characters usually stand around and stare at each other silently. This didn't bother me at first, as it helped establish Harry's mindset and the nature of his empty life, but when the plot started to kick in, I was expecting Refn to ratchet it up a notch or two. Nope. If anything, the second half of the film is even more interminable than the first. I'm sure my anger over the change in focus and the mounting inanities played a part in this, but any way you slice it, the film is still just shy of becoming mind-numbingly dull. There's a big difference between a deliberately paced film and a poorly paced one.
As I mentioned earlier, John Turturro is very good in this film, and so is (surprisingly enough) James Remar. In fact, their performances were the only things that held my interest throughout the film. It's a little hard to judge the rest of the cast, as they all give intentionally flat performances. I can't be sure, but maybe Refn pulled that old Werner Herzog trick and hypnotized them all. Either that or they all sat around watching dailies and just about fell asleep (not that I could blame them).
Lions Gate's work on the technical side of Fear X is of a good/bad nature. The audio is quite good, with well-anchored, intelligible dialogue; excellent, atmospheric use of the surrounds (for both music and effects); and a nicely immersive soundfield. The transfer, on the other hand, is where they dropped the ball. Exterior shots, which are generally few and far between, can look very good (not to mention impressively bleak), but interiors are generally noisy and grainy, especially the backgrounds. There's also a large amount of color bleed, most notably in the reds of the walls in that Montana motel. The only extras are a worthless gallery of production photos and the film's theatrical trailer. I was actually hoping for a commentary from director Refn; I'd love to hear him try to justify this mess.
I don't know if watching Fear X is as exciting an experience as watching grass grow, as I've never actually done the latter. I do, however, know that watching Fear X is a less exciting experience than mowing grass while listening to Frampton Comes Alive!, and I've done that plenty of times.
John Turturro and James Remar are free to go. Nicolas Winding Refn is guilty of theft and inducing boredom. Court is adjourned.
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