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Rewind: 1993 in Film – Fearless

Those opening moments of 1993’s somewhat misplaced, Fearless, are extraordinary. The drifting shots of Max (Jeff Bridges), walking through smoky crop field, carrying a baby and holding the hand of a boy, are heroic ones. These, and others that come into the fray, smoke-smudged faces of the people that are the survivors of a horrific plane crash. The aerial shot of the crash site shows the path of devastation, you can imagine, but wish you couldn’t.

“My baby is in there!” cries one hysterical woman being dragged from the debris. We later learn this is Carla (Rosie Perez), and as Max sees a solitary shoe in the rubble, he, like us, has to confront that unfathomable kind of loss. Moments later, Max reunites the baby his was cradling with another frantic mother. A paradox of fortunes hard to comprehend.

Max, though, has a calmness. He is even asked by an official if he was in the crash – you could be easily forgiven for assuming he was not. His kind of pensive shock lingers, beyond that of a crash victim, almost starting to see the world, and eventually his life, with fresh eyes. The start of a turbulent self-discovery has befallen Max. One he doesn’t yet realise the extent of.

Now, Peter Weir I will get to in good time, but it seems director of photography, Allen Daviau, plays an instrumental part in Fearless‘ hazy atmosphere. Daviau’s only five Academy Award nominations are for probably the best examples of his work. Illuminating, without being flashy; exhibition of scope within the frame, making it look relatively easy; and something you hardly notice, the positioning of the camera in capturing multiple levels of action.

“These so-called normal moments are embellished for Max – almost like he is doing these things for the first time.”

We saw that in Daviau’s expressive, but very different tones, while working with Steven Spielberg. Look at the similar framing of landscapes in Empire of the Sun and The Color Purple, yet completely different colour palettes. His excellent cinematography on two Barry Levinson films, Avalon and Bugsy, photographed and enhanced the stellar production design in both films.

You might, then, find Daviau’s affecting vision in Fearless, more comparable to his 1982 collaboration on E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Much more intimate stories as depicted, and with the Peter Weir film, though without an alien, Daviau’s camera shows similar changing emotions. There’s nothing over-the-top about what we see in Fearless, but how we see it allows us to almost slip into Max’s shoes, as he re-evaluates his life.

Max appears to be a stranger to, not just himself, but the life around he once took for granted as ever so familiar. Embracing the wind on his face, or the feel of moistened grit between his fingers, or fresh water on his skin. These so-called normal moments are embellished for Max – almost like he is doing these things for the first time.

Peter weir introduces us early to strawberry allergy that Max apparently suffers from. Specifically ordering the “forbidden fruit”, but in a separate bowl. Max also aptly notices the waitress’ name is Faith. On this occasion, there is no reaction at all as he takes a huge bite of the fruit.

When Max is reunited with his family, for the first time since surviving the plane crash, he ever so slightly appears devoid of a connective emotion. And to add, he seems to suffer from impulsive outbursts. Being surrounded by grief and relief, overwhelmed by the media attention, Max is shackled in a way he has not experienced before.

“Being surrounded by grief and relief, overwhelmed by the media attention, Max is shackled in a way he has not experienced before.”

Spontaneously driven, Max strolls aimlessly across a busy road, the honks and cursing just passes him by. Later, he walks down a vacated carriageway, as if the world were empty. He even steps out onto the ledge of a building’s roof when direct attention given to his current state is just all too much to handle.

Max is trying to conquer fear, not end his life. In sporadic flashbacks, we return to the doomed flight, prior to the disaster, and Max is clearly anxious. He was afraid of flying before the crash. That is, until he believes that this is the moment of his death, as the plane enters an uncompromising bout of turbulence.

As we witness Carla, a young Hispanic mother of a baby boy, struggle to fasten his seat-belt, there’s a whiff of airline staff neglect. The sub-plot of lawyer and psychological doctor intervention tries to bring the ponderous, care-free Max back to some sort of reality. Claims he is addiction to fear, or even seeking out a different point of view from his wife, Laura (Isabella Rossellini), fall on deaf ears.

One of the film’s key scenes does not even have Max present. Dr. Bill Perlman (John Turturro) hosts a help group session for a few of the survivors. The dynamics of these uniquely troubled people, immeasurable loss and making sense of the pain, is thoroughly engaging. Although, of course, brushed with a poignant layer of sadness.

Max is repelled by the bending of the truth asked by him for a legal settlement. Even for his friend’s widow, whom he was seated with on the plane. Max is also detached from his wife and son, Jonah. Sharing a greater rapport with the boy, Byron, he sat with on the plane as it went down. Byron insists that Max saved his life, and that he feels very safe around him now.

“Their free-spirited visit to the toy store is a prime example of their liberated influence on each other.”

Ejecting himself from what would be regular moments of his life, Max instead employs his emotional worth onto Carla. They share an indescribable relationship, neither a friendship nor a love story, but one based on a mutual near-death experience. Their free-spirited visit to the toy store is a prime example of their liberated influence on each other. Though Carla’s reformation allows her to eventually pierce Max’s stubborn shell.

In the end, as Max closes in on his reality, he asks his wife to save him. And director, Peter Weir, sure knows how to close a film. A marvelous director of the human embrace and journey we just might take. As we relive the demolition of the plane on impact, leading to Max’s survival, and unforeseen redemption, the final sequences are highly emotive, but hardly sentimental. Accompanied by the first incredible segment of Henryk Górecki’s Symphony No. 3 (Symphony of Sorrowful Songs), Weir puts tingles down our spine.

Rosie Perez, who was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her performance, provides the faint heart of a grieving tale, while Isabella Rossellini also shines in a rare under-played turn. This is, of course, Jeff Bridges’ film. A seemingly perfect casting choice for such a profoundly curious soul, stuck in the purgatory of post-trauma and an unfounded zest for living. Fearless remains an invigorating motion picture, one which sadly goes a little too unnoticed in the respective pigeon-holes of Bridges, Weir, and the year of 1993.

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