The disaster movies of the 1970s were overwrought exploitation films — schlock on a grand scale. With their hordes of has-been actors scrambling out of waterlogged luxury liners and blazing buildings, these movies were mostly concerned with turning catastrophe into bombastic physical spectacle. But what about the emotions of disaster? What might it actually feel like to be seated on an airplane and, in the space of one cataclysmic downward lurch, to experience a dread you never imagined, the end of your existence suddenly looming before you?
That’s the question that haunts Peter Weir’s Fearless (R), an emotionally eerie new drama that tells the story of two plane-crash survivors. From its dreamily unsettling opening sequence, in which Max Klein (Jeff Bridges) emerges, dazed, from a smoke-enshrouded forest of cornstalks, the wreckage of a jetliner spread out in surreal shards behind him, it’s clear that this is no TV movie of the week. Weir, working from a script by Rafael Yglesias (based on his 1993 novel), is out to capture the experience of human trauma in all its wrenching terror and strangeness.
Max, a San Francisco architect, is on a business trip to Houston when the plane’s hydraulic system fails. After an attempt to make it to a small airport, the plane crash-lands in a cornfield, and Max is able to lead several survivors out of the fiery wreckage. At least one of the passengers, though, has to be dragged out screaming: Carla Rodrigo (Rosie Perez), a working-class Hispanic housewife whose child has been killed.
Back in San Francisco, Max is reunited with his ballet-teacher wife (Isabella Rossellini) and young son. The media brand him a hero, and an eager lawyer (Tom Hulce) tries to get him to embellish the circumstances of the crash for maximum financial gain. But Max wants none of this. He doesn’t want to lie anymore—about anything. He doesn’t think he’s a hero. He isn’t even sure he exists.
What’s happened? During the plane’s queasy descent (which is shown, at charged intervals, in flashbacks), Max gazes out the window and confronts, for the first time, the prospect of his own death. And what he realizes is that he isn’t afraid: He’s willing to die. Now, having survived, he is trapped in a state of numb transcendence — the sensation that life means nothing (since he was so ready to leave it behind) coupled with the feeling that his own life means more than anyone else’s (since he has succeeded in cheating death). The reality is that Max has been frozen. Yelling up at God in triumph, dancing on the ledge of an office building, he feels infused with power because he’s reliving that one, fearless moment over and over. Is Max crazy or in a state of grace? A monomaniac or a saint? Caught in denial or pushed to a new, mystical level of acceptance?