Peter Weir’s Fearless formally and narratively brings up the challenges of being a person in the world, unavoidably tangled up in the problems of other people’s lives
Peter Weir’s Fearless centres on a plane crash survivor who is, indeed, fearless, because he feels himself to be indestructible after the event. But from the very start — and contrary to what the film’s schmaltzy trailer would have us believe — things in the life of Jeff Bridges’ Max do not appear to be all that rosy. As soon as he gets back home to his wife and son, Max finds trouble. Everyone wants to talk to him about what happened, and his wife Laura (Isabella Rossellini) is all the more relieved to see him walk in because, to her great distress and confusion, he hadn’t bothered to let her know he had survived the accident. In fact, he has absolutely no interest in the latter — and not because, as could be expected, he is particularly afraid to revisit the tragedy. Where others try to spare his feelings by only referring to it with other names or euphemistically, Max shows no qualms about calling it what it is: a plane crash. He talks about seeing his friend and business partner die on the plane the way others talk about traffic. While everyone around him is either in shock or actively trying to get their head around this unimaginable event, Max gives every sign that he is past it. Now he wants to live, experience things, follow his impulses: he acts like a man who feels he has been given a new lease on life and cannot waste any second of the time that has become so precious to him on the details and relatively insignificant considerations of daily life.
Here, Weir could have opted for a visual style that would underline the horror, or even just the drabness, of the normal everyday Max so eagerly wants to escape, better to put us in his shoes. The film almost teases this approach in one of the earliest scenes, taking place before Max has returned to his family and to his life (in the figurative sense of the word). After going to a hotel to take a shower, marvelling at the total absence of scars on his body, Max is seen leaning against his rental car in the California desert and simply looking at the natural landscape around him. The view is breathtaking, so peaceful and quiet compared to the chaotic scenes around the debris of the plane that came before. Max feels the earth between his fingers, studies it, taking in the sensations of textures and the feel of the wind. He continues this sensory journey when he drives down a road with his head out of the window, and the film once again shows the vast expanses surrounding him.
But when Max finally does get back into contact with everyday life, Weir and cinematographer Allen Daviau go out of their way to once again centre beauty and harmony. After that moment of suspension in the desert, when we audiences were left to wonder where the film would go, and Max himself seemed keenly aware of a feeling of freedom and possibility, he decides on a whim to drive to Los Angeles and visit an old friend he hadn’t seen in 20 years. Sitting in a diner, the two characters are gorgeously lit, and even the waitress is framed like an actual person rather than a mere interruption. Fearless by no means embraces an aesthetic of isolation or alienation, on the contrary: every interaction is shot to emphasise not disconnect or conflict, but always, and regardless of the actual content of the conversations, the shared humanity of all — even when Max himself rejects it. At the diner, his Los Angeles friend Alison (Debra Monk) doesn’t know that her pal nearly lost his life, and the two of them talk very casually, like old friends who haven’t seen each other in a long time but are still close enough to be honest with each other. Her life, as she briefly sums it up, is nothing but a series of disappointments. The more she speaks, the more sympathy we feel, and the closer the camera gets to her face — even as Max, in reverse shot, stays with his back straight, the camera continuously at the same distance from him throughout the conversation, echoing his refusal to get involved and share in the frustration and disillusionment of his friend. “Have a strawberry” is all he tells her, as if to change the subject. This aesthetic commitment to all characters even goes for the two opponents in scenes of actual conflict, such as during the fights between Max and his wife. In all situations, the camera remains sensitive to each person’s emotions, and no one is ever reduced to a pawn in the story. Even as Max acts like he does not want to get mired into the feelings and problems of those around him, Weir’s camera remains in touch with them all.
Rather than show these connections as forming a complicated, confusing matrix of contrasting interests, Weir’s film and Rafael Yglesias’ script instead highlight the fundamental instinct at their heart, that which makes all this trouble worthwhile: that of caring. However, “nicecore” cinema Fearless absolutely isn’t. Weir does not here indulge in wishful thinking, creating a fantasy world where people are just nicer in general; nor is the film’s focus on this specific story and moment used as a crass excuse for sentimentality and cheese (the way it is in… practically any other films where the sole motivator for empathy is illness or death). If anything, it is what comes after this automatic period of relief and hyper empathy that concerns the filmmaker the most. How and how much do people continue to care after? Where do this empathy and this care go in everyday life, when the tragedy is over?
In both Fearless and Witness, the lead characters find caring to be very hard and very scary, for it brings up uncomfortable and uncontrollable emotions that in turn make them act out in harmful ways. Weir highlights the fact that caring takes courage, whether it means standing up to corrupt police and colleagues in Witness, or simply living every day with the fear that something you care about today could be taken away from you tomorrow in Fearless. For Max, being alive at all becomes, after the accident, an incredible joy. He delights in simply being and does not want to complicate things further (to be fair, being Jeff Bridges must feel wonderful). But for Rosie Perez’s Carla Rodrigo, a fellow passenger whose child did not survive the crash, being alive is a curse and a cruel injustice, precisely because she still cares about somebody else. Although the two characters are in opposite situations, they are united by their desire to keep away from other people: those who want him to care, and those who want her to let go. Max helps Carla escape her sorrows by taking her out shopping, eating ice cream, or on joyrides; in turn, she helps him by indulging his wish to simply have fun and avoid all his responsibilities — to his job, but also to his family and loved ones. When Carla cries about her child and confides in him about the guilt she feels, Max gets impatient with her, the way he does with anyone who wants to talk about the accident. Yet he does not abandon her to find other, more carefree friends: in one of the film’s most shocking and heartbreaking scenes, he decides to show her once and for all that there was nothing she could have done to save her son by wilfully driving their car into a wall. In demonstrating that no matter how tightly she held onto her child, the impact would have torn him away from her, Max once again demonstrates his newfound fearlessness, but he also helps someone he cares about for the first time in a very long time. His relationship with Carla — which, because Weir respects his characters and his audience, never becomes sexual — is ultimately what helps Max make his first steps towards once again becoming involved in the lives of others, with all their joys and problems.
A more bombastic filmmaker making a movie about a plane crash might have opted to show the fatal moment the machine hit the ground at the beginning of the film, hooking viewers with a spectacular opening scene all the while giving them a sense of what the lead character Max has been through. Weir, however, chooses to show it at the end, by which point the event obviously isn’t a surprise, but is also at a significant remove in time. Yet as shown in this closing sequence, the crash feels more direct, powerful, horrific and devastating than ever: having spent a considerable amount of time with the survivors and their families throughout the film, we can no longer be disaffected spectators — we care.
At this moment, so does Max (one of the most satisfying elements of Weir’s cinema is its economy: nothing ever happens just for one reason). The extended sequence of the crash is presented as a flashback and as a memory flashing in front of Max’s eyes: once again on the verge of dying, he finally seems ready to look back at what happened on that tragic day. This time, no longer cold and detached, he is absolutely terrified of dying. Up until this point, Max was alway heard referring to the crash as the day he died, and to himself as a ghost; he essentially behaved as one. At the end of the film, when his wife saves him and he gasps for air, he comes to with the cry: “I’m alive!”