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By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 29, 1993


Peter Weir
Jeff Bridges;
Isabella Rossellini;
Rosie Perez;
Tom Hulce;
John Turturro;
Benicio Del Toro;
Deirdre O'Connell;
John De Lancie
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For a few minutes at the beginning of "Fearless," Peter Weir's haunting meditation on the aftershocks of trauma, you aren't sure where you are or what's happening. A disheveled man is leading a small boy through a field of corn that appears to have caught fire. As our angle widens, others enter the picture, all of them in some form of distress, but the whys and hows remain hazy until the man (played, we now see, by Jeff Bridges) and the boy wander past the burning debris of a crashed airliner.

The scene is complete chaos, with firemen and rescue workers rushing around, and mothers screaming for their children, but the man appears perfectly composed and in control. Almost serene. Bridges has always been a beautifully expressive physical actor, and the slow, smooth, loose-limbed gait he uses to pick his way through the hysteria is brilliantly ambiguous. At the very worst, he appears distracted or preoccupied, as if he were trying to remember where he'd parked his car. And yet there's a tension in his body; every fiber of his being stands at attention.

Structurally, the movie follows the standard outline of made-for-television problem dramas. Max -- that's the man's name -- has had a near-death experience. And is suffering from post-traumatic shock syndrome or some such condition about which we, as a nation, need to be enlightened. But Weir departs from the formula by paying almost no attention to the clinical details of Max's condition. For Weir -- the Australian-born director of "Dead Poets Society" and "The Mosquito Coast" -- the crash is merely a platform for an exploration of life and death, loss and grief, the struggles of middle age and the effects of close encounters with the infinite, just to name a few.

The result is a devastating, disquieting, minor-key movie about a man in extremis -- a modern-day Icarus who brushes his wing against the eternal -- that resembles disease-of-the-week television sagas about as much as Donna Mills resembles Greta Garbo.

Working here from Rafael Yglesias's adaptation of his own novel, Weir has chosen fear as his main topic. Max has always been a nervous, phobic sort of person (even when not flying), but as his plane plummets to the ground, all his fears reach critical mass, leaving him not in a panic but strangely calm and, for the first time in his life, unafraid. He is the only surviving passenger to keep his head, enabling him to lead the rest to safety.

As a result, Max suddenly finds himself an accidental hero and the focus of attention that he neither wants nor feels he deserves. What he'd like is to be left alone to reenter his life as a husband and successful San Francisco architect. But though Max appears ready to pick up his life where he left off, psychologically he's undergone a radical transition. His wife, Laura (Isabella Rossellini), notices it immediately, and Dr. Pearlman (John Turturro), a specialist in post-traumatic stress, is circling like a vulture in anticipation of Max's inevitable breakdown.

As Max, Bridges turns in another in what has become an astoundingly long list of brilliant performances. Using the simplest means imaginable, he steps into a role as nonchalantly as he might slip into his trousers. And the fit is exquisite. As a performer, Bridges has a complete lack of vanity; nothing in his work here is designed to impress or to soften the hard edges of his character.

The sense of invulnerability that swept over Max during the accident doesn't wear off after he's gone home. Having come so close to death, he feels released from all fears, and in response he becomes almost desperately euphoric. Convinced that God has tried to kill him and can't, Max decides that he can no longer live as he has in the past; he cannot make the tiny daily compromises that life demands.

To provide another point of view on the crash, Weir singles out another survivor, Carla (Rosie Perez), a young mother whose baby died after being ripped from her arms. Max, who feels blessed, thinks he can help her. And anyway, surviving the disaster has made them soul mates, linked rudely by tragedy.

Inevitably they become something like lovers, though not quite. Somehow, they feel, they have to be together, not only because they are the only ones who can understand what has happened, but because to let go of one another means death.

Casting the fireball Perez with the laconic Bridges was inspired; the contrast just naturally creates sparks. And those who had started to think that one Rosie Perez performance was pretty much the same as another can be comforted in the knowledge that the actress is virtually unrecognizable in this role. Not only is Carla aggrieved over her loss, she carries the extra burden of guilt because her weakness, in her mind, caused her baby's death.

Ultimately Max will go to rather elaborate extremes to prove to Carla that, in fact, her baby's death was not her fault. But in saving her, Max increases the danger for himself. The actors partner each other beautifully in these scenes. They're like an old married couple who've grown so connected that they've passed beyond the need for words.

As good as Bridges is, Perez matches him in every department. In bringing this woman to life, Perez covers an astounding range of emotions, and with an equally impressive sense of precision and touch. For the first time in her movie career, she can be called delicate.

Providing skillful counterpoint to this pair is a chorus of peerless supporting performances, including Turturro's weirdly subdued contribution as Max's designated shrink, Tom Hulce's uncannily accurate caricature of a bottom-feeding lawyer, and bella Isabella's fiercely passionate characterization of a wife desperate to have her husband take her along on his revelatory journey.

It would come as no surprise at all if every one of these actors were nominated for an Oscar. And the same goes for the film itself. Weir manages to sustain that disoriented, tightrope-walking tone of the beginning throughout the entire movie. As a result, the suspense -- which comes partly from the simple fact that the movie is such a one-of-a-kind item -- mounts steadily to the point of discomfort. In every scene of this extraordinary movie -- in all of Allen Daviau's splendid images and Maurice Jarre's unnerving music -- the stakes are doubled, making the payoff, when it comes, the movie equivalent of breaking the bank.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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