Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Screenplay: Hubert Selby Jr. and Nicolas Winding Refn
Cast: John Turturro (as Harry); Deborah Kara Unger (as Kate); Stephen McIntyre (as Phil); William Allen Young (as Agent Lawrence); Gene Davis (as Ed)
Synopsis: Harry (John Turturro), a mall security guard, becomes obsessed with deliberate but mysterious murder of his wife, only for a growing series of clues and a constant stream of hallucinations to push him towards finding the culprit himself and finding out why his wife died.
Here, all the way back in 2003, Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn was already making idiosyncratic films that massively divided viewers. The Neon Demon (2016) may be exceptionally polarising now, but the result of how Fear X did before he had his reputation, his first attempt to break into the US, led his production company to bankruptcy and Refn to have to heal his wounds until the end of the late 2000s, making acclaimed sequels to his debut Pusher (1996), and making a special in the Miss Marple franchise in 2009, the least excepted part of his filmography, before Bronson (2008) and Valhalla Rising (2009) brought him up to the present day auteur who's both loved and hated. Whilst Only God Forgives (2013) was notorious for him, he still got to make The Neon Demon three years after, whilst Fear X was an entirely different kettle of fish without the reputation of a mainstream smash in Drive (2011) to soften the divided critical opinion.
Fear X is a very distinct animal that presents what would happen with Refn's later films, a through line to be found but within a work entrenched in a gritty, naturalistic grunginess for most of its length at odds with his later stylised, neon soaked movies. It still follows an almost elliptical tone that remains constant in his career however, which is the most distinct point to take from it. Turturro is prominent in three quarters or even more of the film, slowly unfolding scenes following his building up of clues of who is responsible for his wife's death through a minimalistic take on a very conventional crime narrative. The film starts to become more allusive as it goes on, becoming more like the Refn films of the later 2010s when momentum builds around the protagonist's hallucinations and the cause of the story being merely explained in snippets and hints in the dialogue only.
The most pronounced aspect of Fear X eventually, when its plot is a straight out crime thriller on paper, is the subconscious flashes of Turturro's mind straight from horror cinema. It could be seen as jarring - red and black visages of faces pushing through membrane1, flashes of x-ray like shapes layering on top of each other and, probably the most alarming moment in any of Refn's cinema despite all the gore he's depicted, an elevator in an entirely dark room whose light shows the ground being submerged in a foot at least of red water - but it matches an easy to forget the subplot suggesting the weight of the protagonist's grief is slowly evolving into this after it stars with his wife appearing at times to comfort him either as a memory or a ghost, the more nightmarish imagery building from the violence he has witnessed and will eventually find himself in trying to complete his goal. That the figure behind the murder is not an inherently evil figure, but given snippets of an ordinary home life thus forcing the viewer in a moral conundrum, brings a horrible sense of the viewer knowing how badly the story will resolve, the screws being turned more tightly to their discomfort as Turturro eventually finds himself in a red lit hotel straight from a David Lynch film. That the film even in its end credits, a split of various CCTV camera screens, is purposely undercutting the viewer's expectations of what they'd presume would happen in the film forces a cold, unnerving mood to be felt throughout its short running time.
Filmed in a gritty tone for a large part, Fear X has a remarkably different tone from the likes of Drive and later Refn films, feeling closer to the American indie films yore with Turturro's appearance and the wintery small town setting of the first half. Certainly this film brings up the fact Refn is able to take direct influences from many other films but creates his own idiosyncratic style, able to hopscotch between a grounded drama in scenes of Turturro as a security guard in a mall chasing an older man who's shop lifted, to a mix of horror and the montage effect of Stan Brakhage shorts in the more nightmarish imagery. The drastic changes in tone when it becomes more heighted doesn't contradict the more natural, paranoid tone of the first half in the slightest, able to make the two halves whole in how the slow methodical pace used through the film keeps everything controlled and suitable to each other.
The music marks Refn's constant obsession with electronic music, with the legendary Brian Eno with J. Peter Schwalm contributing an unnerving droning score of sounds and noises between them that adds to the sense of paranoia throughout the story.
Abstract Spectrum: Expressionist/Grotesque/Mindbender
Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): Low
There're numerous films in Refn's filmography which exist within a subjective, sometimes nightmarish, reality which can exist out of time at points. Fear X at first is a grounded, subdued drama but like the later films a lingering sense of dread is felt at the start and, amplified by Eno and Schwalm's unsettling score, grows in intensity constantly next to Turturro's incredibly subtle performance, Refn's tendency for prolonged and lingering scenes having a distorting affect on viewers. Interestingly without the violence of the later films, very minimal throughout, the subjective nature of how its treated becomes even more disturbing in terms of the more fantastical imagery used or the scenes involving CCTV footage which have their own alien, grimy realism. As much a psychodrama drama as a crime mystery, the film entirely removes the expectations of a revenge story in its matter-of-fact anti-climax, turning against the viewer in a way that for me wasn't disappointing but gave me a chill on the back of my neck.
An incredibly underrated film in Nicolas Winding Refn's career and actually my favourite from all the ones I've seen. For all the criticism of the later films being style over substance and for their graphic violence, Fear X qualifies as a significant rebuttal in how it takes a conventional plot and turns it into a subtle, potent experience.
1 This is actually reminiscent to the music video for Here to Stay by nu metal band Korn from around this period, only far more subtly creepy.