Reframe: Peter Weir’s Fearless
I have sobbed only twice in a movie theatre. Oh, I’ve teared up, felt my eyes get wet and whatnot, but break down? Only twice. Once was near the end of Philadelphia when Denzel adjusted Tom Hanks oxygen mask. I don’t even think Philadelphia is that great a movie, but I’ll be damned if they didn’t get me.
The other and most remarkable time was at the end of Peter Weir’s Fearless. The tears that came were not like those from Philadelphia. Where for better or worse, I knew I was being manipulated a bit. Nah, with Fearless, it was something altogether different. I was overcome. I had nowhere to hide. No way to compose myself in the power of its final moment.
I’ve never had another experience like that with the art of cinema in my life. The hell of it all, is it’s hard to explain “the why”. It’s not even all that easy to explain the movie.
Oh sure, you can take the time to say the movie is about a guy who survives a plane crash and finds while he can be in the world, he can’t truly be of it. He can no longer lie. Not even in the little ways we humans do to move on to the next minute of our lives. He finds himself nearly incapable of relating to anyone who hasn’t had the same experience as he. Everything must be completely authentic.
How can you know life if you haven’t been on the precipice of death?
There are two truly extraordinary scenes in the film. One where he explains to fellow crash survivor Rosie Perez that there’s no way she could have hung onto her baby when the plane crashed. He does this by using a tool box and ramming a car into a wall while the intro to Where The Streets Have No Name plays over the scene.
It left me in awe.
It would have seemed that a moment like that would have been hard, if not impossible, to top. Yet there I was at the end, watching Jeff Bridges eat a strawberry, go into shock, and once again find himself on that same edge with a decision to make. I was left staggered in my seat. It was as if my bones had melted, my heart was pounding through my chest, and only the breath of life sustaining my existence. As I said, I was overcome.
Fearless was well reviewed when it came out in 1993. It even scored an Oscar nomination for Perez as best supporting actress. It made next to no money though. Since then, it’s faded from view. So much so that when I’m asked to name my favorite movies – and this one is always on my shortlist – and I say Fearless, I often get a cock-eyed look, followed by “The Jet-Li movie? Really?”
No! Not the god damn Jet-Li movie for chrissakes! The movie that contains the career best work of Jeff Bridges and Rosie Perez. The movie with the finest two hours and two minutes of direction by the truly great Peter Weir. The movie that has space for John Turturro, Tom Hulce, Isabella Rossellini, and a young Benicio Del Toro. The movie so profound it would make Ingmar Bergman and Terrence Malick gasp in unison.
The movie that broke me in two.
I realize all these words have done little to explain the film. Discussing plot points, what happened when, and all that are meaningless. You simply must experience it.
When I correct people from the mistaken belief that a film from the Jet-Li oeuvre is one of my favorites, they often next ask “What is it about?”
I have finally come up with a stock answer to that question.