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  • #41: Fearless (1993) (dir. Peter Weir)

#41: Fearless (1993) (dir. Peter Weir)

never has a movie made me cry like the final ten minutes of this

“Every man is the sum total of his reactions to experience. As your experiences differ and multiply, you become a different man, and hence your perspective changes. This goes on and on. Every reaction is a learning process, every significant experience alters your perspective.” - Hunter S. Thompson

I know you’re already thinking - wait, didn’t I already write about this film? I sure did, back with my 7th entry. But I watched it again; new thoughts emerged. My 7th entry has actually been replaced with another title! I’m cheating a bit but have no “fear.” This is also a great primer for the newbies who have recently signed up!

Grief and trauma often reveal that binaries don’t exist. But what if grief turned you invincible? You aren’t really able to acknowledge shock and trauma but suddenly, you feel as if anything was possible. On one hand, maybe you are no longer human since you don’t experience terror when danger approaches. On the other, you need to escape your true self whenever any inkling of a memory from the trauma comes creeping up. Are you living a lie? Are you avoiding the truth? You still get to feel a rush of adrenaline at the notion of being alive all the while not having to go through life reliving a horrific moment in time.

Peter Weir’s Fearless has never played like a movie for me - it plays like an experience that I understand to a frightening degree. Even when I was taking classes in psychology, I always would refer others to this as being the best portrayal of PTSD that I’ve ever seen. I am watching it for the scenes, the actors, the visuals, the sounds but I am feeling everything I have felt during my own traumatic experience of nearly dying. I of course love and appreciate therapy but few things have come close to me as this film in terms of therapeutic catharsis. It not only confronts what I went through but leads to a true sense of gratitude that I’m still here. Great art can do a lot, and this is a true example of something I think has a kind of power and magic over the viewer, especially if they relate.

As we begin, Fearless feels like a horror movie probably because what has just happened is horrifying: a plane crash. In medium-long shots of a cornfield framing stalks in the middle plane that obscure the background, a disheveled man appears, shrouded by smoke, holding the hand of a young boy and cradling a baby with his free hand. As the man walks through the field, others appear behind him as if dropping fully formed from the stalks, milling about in bewilderment until the camera tracks with them to reveal the wreckage of the downed plane. 

The man does not bat an eye, and we learn through his blunt dialogue that the kids he's holding are not his own. He hands them off to responsible parties, takes one last look around, heads over to a cabbie and asks to be driven to a motel so he can shower. He needs to wash his entire body and reconnect to cleanliness. “You’re not dead,” he says to himself in the bathroom mirror. Much later in the film, he will proclaim out loud to his wife that he’s in fact, “alive.”

The next thing Max does is travel by car, playing music, letting the wind hit his face and even stopping by the side of the road to feel pebbles of rocks in his hand. He pays a visit to his past meeting with an ex-girlfriend Alison, with whom he was together as a teenager. To see her, Max travels quite a long distance as lives in Los Angeles, far away from Bakersfield, where the plane fell. Max’s behavior involves a multitude of different odd patterns. First of all, the visit is unreasonable and impulsive. Secondly, the way the main protagonist acts, talks, and his facial expressions show that he is very distant from reality. In reality too, he is supposed to be allergic to strawberries, but he eats them at a diner with no reaction. 

From that point forward, Max lacks focus and often fails to listen to what others have to say if they’re being negative about the crash. For Max, “it’s the best thing that has ever happened to him.” Further, it becomes obvious that Max’s way of making sense of various situations is rather biased. He is incredibly optimistic and joyful unless he’s faced with brutal, unencumbered truth as showcased when he’s confronted by the press and asked by a shady lawyer to lie about the details surrounding the death of his friend. He seems to pick up small signs and details that indicate the surrealism of the events around, but Max is also strangely oblivious. He then gets a high from confronting and reliving the possibility of dying - the fine line between life and death etched out in front of his very eyes. Some might consider his behavior to be dissociative but for Max, he’s blissful, Zen-like and accepting of what has happened. It’s a metamorphosis. But is it a good one since inevitably, it will alienate him from those he loves the most.

He soon finds direction in his rebirth through another traumatized survivor, Carla Rodrigo (played by Rosie Perez in an Oscar nominated role that is nearly every bit as perfect as Bridges is). Carla can’t find the will to live due to her belief that she could have saved her infant son during the plane crash. She is unbearably depressed while Max seems to feel nothing but a sense of enlightenment. The hope is that their connection and shared experience can somehow balance each other out. In a way, isn’t that what we hope for in any relationship? A sense that the other will complete us in a way and make things make sense again. That certainly happens during a pivotal sequence that takes place in a mall involving buying gifts for the dead, enjoying decadent sweets, a dance between friends.

Fearless throws us into the middle of one of life’s greatest questions—how do you live after you’ve almost died? Not to mention the fact that because Max chose not to sit in his original seat near his friend, he in turn likely saved his own life. Moments before the plane went down, he accepted death as an inevitability. He was able to walk around and comfort others, particularly a frightened young boy who was on the flight all alone. Carla and Max won’t cross paths until much later. When they do, it’s one of the best friendships ever captured on film.

Nothing and I mean nothing in movies makes me cry harder than the final 10 minutes of this film as we watch Max confront death with his wife attempting to save him, while also allowing the audience to relive what he experienced on the plane. Life-affirming is an understatement but to watch someone basically confront their trauma and finally break down being able to cry in acknowledgment is just one of those rare moments in art that moves me to no end. It helps that my favorite piece of music is playing, which some might consider to be manipulative, but it’s a combination of all the elements working in harmony. Acting, music, visuals, emotion, editing. It’s also a superhero story but Max’s superpower is turning something negative into something positive. By doing so, he might in turn be denying the terror of a traumatic experience.

“When I was first becoming involved with this picture, a dear friend of my wife’s and mine died. She had been ill for two years and I remember her coming to the house on one of her last visits. As I greeted her, she looked me in the eye and all I could think of was that old saying about the eyes being ‘the window of the soul.’ It was a look without any barrier or artifice. I felt as if I were looking at her soul, seeing her as I’d never looked at her in my life… …I told Jeff that I thought Max was in that same place: he had accepted the great turning wheel that we all know is out there. But we can only intellectualize it, we can’t feel it somehow. What if you returned from that state, what if you found ecstasy and, in coming back, found it very difficult to simply pick life up?” – Peter Weir

Fearless is certainly about the syndrome of survivor's guilt to a degree but something also occurred to me watching it this time: this is a bit of a portrayal of imposter syndrome. Only this time it is not about a relationship or a successful career, it’s about life itself - feeling as if you’re a ghost, detached and de-realized. It’s similar to depression - you don’t feel like you’re 100% there in the real world. There is a part of the mind that is hidden, cast in shadow. “Why am I alive” are probably questions both Max and Carla are experiencing together. This isn’t going to lead to a Twilight Zone-like twist of course like in Carnival of Souls, because they are here in reality but, in a way, they’re stuck inside a prison of dissonance with the outside world.

Max, at first, views the crash as a blessing, but, in reality, it’s more of a curse that he must eventually be saved from. Feeling fear and feeling anxiety as a result of something tragic is a normal human experience. Carla and Max also begin to realize over time that maybe being together is not going to lead to personal growth, they have to save themselves on their own, independently of one another. Carla realizes this first, soon after the gift that Max gives her when they reenact the impact of the crash in a way that still gives me chills just thinking about what he did for her.

As he’s done in the past, filmmaker Peter Weir chooses to stay true to the underlying emotions of the story while staying away from the typical Hollywood clichés and the film is stronger emotionally because of it. I often think of how he rarely chooses to spell things out or spoon-feed the audience throughout all of his work. I guess one could roll their eyes a bit at Del Toro’s character being one-dimensional and selfish alongside Tom Hulce’s lawyer character hoping to score a bigger settlement from the airline as being subplot distractions from the emotional core of the story. I almost think of them as inevitabilities - people like them exist even if they’re underwritten here. It takes nothing away for me. In contrast, John Turturro’s therapist really does get to shine particularly during a group therapy scene that plays like real life. Everybody has a different response to what they’ve been through.

For Max, healing implies giving himself permission to be the one in need of saving, to be in pain that someone else can help relieve by being unconditionally present. It’s as if his amygdala has turned off and someone or something needs to flip the switch. The pain in question must be the one experienced when the fear of dying is triggered, meaning that the only way for him to be metaphorically saved, is by allowing someone to quite literally save his life. Perhaps it’s the love of his life that can bring him back to being in touch with his humanity, which does include crying about the crash and feeling fear again in the present. Max’s wife has to help save him in a different way that Max helped Carla. He will now see the light and confront the darkness of trauma.

To this day, I’m still not sure how Peter Weir and writer Rafael Yglesias and actor Jeff Bridges managed to tap into the near-death experience better than any piece of art I’ve ever encountered. I cannot watch this movie with a critical eye whatsoever. In fact, I’d say Bridges gives my favorite acting performance of all time and leave it at that. It’s almost as if the universe put this film here for me to handle my own trauma. For those who don’t know, I almost died at the age of 18 when a rare fungal infection almost killed me. Doctors in the hospital told my parents that I may not live through the trauma. The lower left lobe of my lung was removed, and I endured some of the most significant pain imaginable. 

The day I got out of the hospital (after about a month of being there), the same thing happened to where I opened up the car window and felt fresh air on my face. It felt entirely new, invigorating. I was still in shock though, both physically and mentally. You know something’s wrong too if I couldn’t finish a piece of pizza my parents got because my body couldn’t handle the experience of normal food for a while. Still, everything felt surreal and unreal. I couldn’t believe I survived after doctors were certain that I wouldn’t survive. Heck, there was even a tornado touchdown not too far away from the hospital when I was staying there. If that destructive force had maintained strength and moved closer to the building, could it have destroyed the hospital and killed me that way? (Probably why the ending of A Serious Man hits home for me too). Death can happen at any time, in any way. There’s no preparation even if doctors attempt to do just that.

Fearless is a monumental movie that makes me grateful to be alive. But it also captures the horror and shock of being so close to that inevitable end, the final breath, the closing shot. The light or lack thereof. “You can’t save everyone, Max,” says Carla during their final interaction. “You got to try taking care of yourself now.” I think that’s an important lesson for us all. Yes, we do have to be there for the ones we love but we also have to be careful with ourselves and practice mindfulness. The taste, the touch of beauty of life, don’t give that up.

Film and music get me back in touch with honesty and vulnerability but, in the end, I have to treat this life like it could end randomly, suddenly and without warning. Being fearless is not possible (though I got a tattoo once with just that word which I regret). Living life and trying to connect with the outside world is important. It’s something I didn’t think was possible for quite a long time (to where I even attempted to take my own life when I was 12 years old). Not only is this movie beautifully made and acted, but it is a transcendent, life-affirming work of art in which everything about it makes sense, has resonance and in the end, makes me remember what I went through, what my dad went through and what we all might go through at any point in time. It’s truly a movie about life and death and the complicated emotions that arise with having awareness about both being a part of the human experience.

No hyperbole: This movie is one of the best things to ever happen to me. It’s why I keep returning to it, because what I went through, almost dying, is something that still feels unreal. The experience of watching this makes it real again but allows me to confront the fact that I survived. Now what to do with the time that’s left is all up to me. And It’s okay to be afraid of what’s to come and not knowing what death will even be.


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