Fear X



Denmark (Den/UK/Can) 2002 : Nicolas Winding REFN : 91 mins


Warningcontains (mild) spoilers


Fear X is a lot of gong for very little dinner. On paper, this collaboration between Refn and co-writer Hubert Selby Jr – the terrific American author responsible for novels like Requiem For A Dream, Last Exit to Brooklyn and The Demon – promises much. And the early sections suggest that the movie is going to deliver handsomely: intriguingly ominous and laconic scenes immerse us in the grief-stunned world of widowed Wisconsin security guard Harry Cain (John Turturro).

Some months before, Harry’s wife was killed in the underground car-park of the shopping mall where he still works. Harry becomes obsessed with finding out exactly what happened, spending every free moment scrutinising the mall’s CCTV archives and pinning blurry photographs of potential ‘suspects’ to the wall of his home to creating a montage that looks like a piece of conceptual modern art. Cain joins his near-namesake Harry Caul from Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) and the hyper-driven heroes of Antonioni’s Blow Up (1967) and De Palma’s Blow Out (1981) – each of them probing the limits of their times’ technology to solve what may or may not be a murder and/or conspiracy.

There are also agreeable echoes of other vengeful-husband tales like The Vanishing, Memento and Irreversible (Harry’s wife was pregnant), but Refn and Selby aim for more ambitious psychological and political terrain. Because, as the details of the case accumulate, it becomes clear that Fear X is an explicit response to and analysis of the events of September 11th, 2001 – the security film Harry analyses is clearly datemarked 2002, and one character makes a speech tellingly referring to “this day of unrest, turmoil and mistrust.” Entering a rural diner, Harry orders a slice of apple pie and the camera zooms in with almost morbid fascination on the Stars & Stripes mural behind him.

Where Selby and Refn fall down, however, is in the construction of a coherent dramatic narrative strong enough to bear the weight of their fascinating subtext. The development of suspense is skilfully handled, including one especially nerve-jangling sequence where Harry breaks into the apparently empty neighbouring house he suspects is a surveillance post used by forces unknown. What he finds there proves crucial to his investigations – but the tense scene marks a high-point from which Fear X makes a very rapid descent.

The second half, where Harry’s path gradually crosses that of Peter (the ever-welcome James Remar), a policeman visibly tormented by his guilty conscience, proves a severe disappointment. The exposition becomes increasingly clunky, reaching a nadir in a ‘star chamber’ exchange between a group of conspiratiorial heavies that sounds like it’s been written in Danish and very quickly translated. Sensing he’s losing his grip over his material, in the late stretches Refn shifts the ‘action’ to a hotel decorated in various ominous shades of dark red – though his efforts are constantly undercut by the unflattering memories they stir of Turturro’s signature role Barton Fink, not to mention the more creatively enigmatic stylings of David Lynch: “We provide all sorts of entertainment here,” confides an all-too-sinister desk clerk as the soundtrack fills with doomy susurrations.

The symbolism of these hotel scenes could scarcely be more overt – Harry’s death-wish has been clearly implied from almost his first appearance, but just in case we don’t get the message Refn lays on various shenanigans involving a spooky lift, dark corridors and even an image of exploding red liquid to indicate homicidal fury. Leaving many ends of the plot ostentatiously untied, Fear X ultimately seems as pretentious as its title – a self-conscious exercise in enigmatic atmospherics that will leave far too many viewers feeling short-changed.

1st March, 2003
(seen 29th January, Cinerama, Rotterdam – Rotterdam Film Festival)

For all the review from the Rotterdam Film Festival click here.

by Neil Young