“People don’t believe in God so much as they choose not to believe in nothing.”
In my last post about director Peter Weir, I briefly mentioned that his earlier film Dead Poets Society inspired me to consider becoming a teacher, a career I am in the midst of pursuing. “Inspired” is too small a word, though. Even with the reflection that DPS is not one of Weir’s best works, the experience I had watching it for the first time was one of the more profoundly moving artistic experiences of my life.
Fearless is not profoundly moving. It is transcendent, and I mean that in as literal a way as possible. I’ve written before about how the “Bye Bye Life” sequence at the end of All That Jazz made me feel like I was outside of myself, watching myself have a reaction to what I was watching. I also felt this way during a concert of Stephen Sondheim’s music, when the Julliard Choir performed “Sunday” from Sunday in the Park With George at the end of a long day of music, but it hadn’t happened to me recently.
Until Fearless. Both a technical masterpiece and an emotional marvel, this movie might defeat Witness, which defeated Master and Commander as my favorite Peter Weir movie. It might take some time, but also like Witness and All That Jazz, it might become one of my favorite movies of all time.
One of the things that I love most about Fearless is that it’s so unexpected. Each time you think you know where the movie’s going, it slips past you in another direction. The film starts with the aftermath of a plane crash (though the details of the crash are a recurring motif, and a major part of the film’s climax, this could be any tragedy that leaves survivors). Max Klein (Jeff Bridges) leads a group of survivors out of the crash, carrying a baby. We don’t get the scope of the crash until we get it all at once, in a series of scenes that proves J.J. Abrams watched this before directing the Lost pilot. Immediately you know this film is going to be about what happens after an event of this scale, a tragedy of this magnitude.
…And then Max walks away. He disappears, checking into a hotel, inspecting himself, feeling dead but knowing he’s alive. He visits an old girlfriend. He eats strawberries. He drives through the desert with loud music playing, feeling the wind on his face, the sun against his skin. We start to think that maybe this is about a man who fakes his own death.
…And then the FBI agents show up to take him home to his wife (Isabella “He Put His Disease In Me” Rossellini).
Fearless continues in that fashion through the rest of the film, and one of its delights is how everything feels like a natural progression but is unexpected and surprising. That’s one of Weir’s gifts as a director — he takes his audiences on these strange journeys with the characters, and when you look back at the end of it, it all makes sense, even if you’re not sure how you got there.
Of course, these journeys need a guide, and like Jim Carrey or Russell Crowe or Harrison Ford, Weir picks the perfect actor to inhabit Max Klein. Jeff Bridges is an actor who I’ve always liked, and found myself often impressed by, but only in the last couple of years have I gone from like to outright love. He’s probably the most gifted American actor working today, and it’s a pretty hopeful sign for the future of American movies that his versatility seems to be reflected in actors like James Franco, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Ryan Gosling. (I’d also throw in nu-Kirk Chris Pine, who has the easy charm and rugged affability of Bridges’ earlier work.)
Like the film, like Weir’s direction, Bridges is both unpredictable, fascinating, and makes perfect sense in everything that he does.
I’m trying to describe the movie without spoiling it for you, but this film is so many things, and had such an impact on me, that I keep coming back to how I felt with “Sunday” and All That Jazz. Experiencing those moments of art for the first time, I felt a sense of grace that is so rare not just in art, but in life. In my last post about Peter Weir, I quoted him discussing how one can occasionally hope to be touched by God in making a craft. I know it sounds silly and new age-y, but I found/felt God in this film, and the experience was so personally moving that it reminded me why I love movies in the first place; it touched me in that way that makes me crave more, now, soon.
There’s a divinity found in Fearless that tells me “everything’s going to be all right.”
And you know what? It is.