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Fear X   B

Moviehouse Entertainment

Year Released: 2003 (USA: 2005)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Writers: Nicolas Winding Refn, Hubert Selby Jr.
Cast: John Turturro, James Remar, Deborah Kara Unger, Stephen McIntyre, William Allen Young, Eugene M. Davis.

Review by Rob Vaux

Fear X isn't a good film per se. A better word would be "efficient," as in "doing what it does very well." The fact that it explores a widower's obsession with the murder of his wife, however, ranks it very low on the shits-and-giggles meter. It's a fundamentally Scandinavian movie, a hyperintense meditation on death and destiny set amid a bleak wintry landscape and played out by the emotionally devastated. Danish director Nicholas Winding Refn evokes a singular theme for 91 overpowering minutes, pulling the viewer in and skillfully enticing us to share in his protagonist's torment.

Refn's biggest influence is actually David Lynch, whose unique form of disquieting dream logic is on full display here. Fear X is notable in the minimalist way it conjures such an atmosphere, relying on its sparsely furnished sets and the foreboding plains of the upper Midwest to convey the mood. The haunting music of Larry Smith and J. Peter Schwalm works wonders in that regard, as does Refn's unblinking camera that focuses relentlessly on its chosen subjects. More than anything, however, it's the actors who fulfill the film's emotional premise. They must sell us using nothing more than tiny facial tics and invisible mannerisms, for the dialogue is spare in the extreme. Without a strong pair of leads able to do a lot with a little, the entire affair would collapse beneath its own pretense. Fear X finds its champions in John Turturro and James Remar, whose unspoken expressions adroitly reveal the depths of their characters' pain.

Turturro's Harry Cain is the fulcrum of the plot, an unassuming Wisconsin mall cop whose wife is killed in the parking lot where he works. The authorities have no leads and his friends are more interested in his well-being than the identity of the murderer. He's fixated, however, and thanks to his job, he can do some investigating of his own. The mall security cameras must have picked up the killer, and if he examines enough tape, he might be able to spot the man wandering amid the outlets and kiosks. So he goes home day after day, poring over fuzzy video images and straining madly to see something -- anything -- identifiable in the smudged, pixilated lines. His digging eventually leads him to Peter Northrup (Remar), a Montana policeman whose eyes hold the same haunted expression as his. Under Refn's direction, the two men's paths slowly intertwine, bound by the thinnest of threads yet moving inexorably towards a head-on collision.

The main goal here is the examination of Cain's mind during this process, rendered through both his oppressively ordinary surroundings and brief nightmare sequences that explode in swaths of bloody scarlet. It can be quite obtuse at times, and the pretense of the material is often grating. But Fear X maintains a hypnotic grip on its audience, even as the plot crawls forward at a snail's pace. Turturro's presence helps a great deal; his work here hearkens back to Barton Fink, another exercise in claustrophobia that depended upon his character's inner eye to succeed. He inhabits Cain completely, and we never question the plausibility of his desires or the strange, desperate measures he takes to gain some release. Remar plays a smaller part, but his few scenes are pivotal, forming a dark mirror to Cain's own obsessions and casting a pall over Northrup's seemingly happy wife (Deborah Kara Unger) and child. The two actors also bring a modicum of humanity to the proceedings, a sorely needed commodity that keeps Fear X from devolving into clinical mechanics.

Refn comes from a different school of filmmaking than many Americans are used to -- a school where box office matters less than the filmmaker's vision. The approach has its own share of pitfalls, which Fear X can't entirely avoid: the whiff of self-indulgence, for example, or that an hour and a half sometimes feels like a day at the dentist's. But while Fear X will never wow them at the multiplexes, it has the discipline to stare its concept in the face and never relent until it achieves satisfaction. Refn takes his time in revealing the film's mysteries to us, but the journey -- while odd and sometimes painful -- always serves a larger purpose. Like many difficult films, this one proves far more enjoyable in post-screening reflection than in the theater. It may not be pleasant viewing, but those attuned to its dark musings will find themselves more than grateful for the experience.

Review published 02.02.2005.

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