Wednesday 20 July 2011

Obscurity Files - Fear X

It is with great pleasure that I welcome a guest writer to Slacker Cinema for the first time today. Paul Martin, writer for, gives us his appraisal of one of Nicolas Winding Refn's early films. I hope you enjoy his contribution as much as I did, and recommend you head over to Film Doom as soon as you've finished reading it.

Out in September, Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive is one of the most purely enjoyable movies I've seen so far this year. And with that automotive thriller a near-certainty to bring the Danish director to a wider audience, it seems as fine a time as any to look back at his English-language debut, 2003's Fear X.

I'll be honest, I really wanted to hate Drive. I wanted to utterly fucking detest it like Indiana Jones utterly fucking detests snakes. Like Wile E. Coyote utterly fucking detests the speeding ball of smugness that is the Road Runner.

Why this desire for annoyance? Why this lust for disgust?


Smarmy, sinewy film bloggers, who ever since Bronson pitched up a few years back have been queueing up all the way from Boston to Bognor Regis in order to wrap their lips around the Winding Refn scrotum and suck on it like a horde of ravenous aardvarks at an all-you-slurp ant buffet.

Y'see, Winding Refn possesses many of the qualities which are guaranteed to get the majority of the movie blogging crowd sweaty under the collective collar: he's young(ish), he has a penis, his films are packed full of technical flourishes and gritty violence, and he has a touch of rock star swagger about his media persona.

The snarkers feel he is on their wavelength, they reckon they are very much on his, while I, with my natural streak of contrariness the width of the M1, am inclined to vomit, vomit, and vomit some more at the sorry spectacle of this cretinous love-in. Plus Drive stars Ryan Gosling, and ever since I suffered through the tedious, whining, whinging moan-fest that was Blue Valentine, I've been harbouring a spitting grudge against the young actor to rival the one Gordon Brown harbours against News International. Whoa, simmer down, Gordie! Someone's liable to lose an eye... oh, er...

How disappointing it was then (but, on the other hand, also kinda great) to find that Drive is actually a skillo-ace gem of genre cinema, a retro-cool blend of minimal dialogue and maximum style. Damn it, I was being slowly indoctrinated into the burgeoning cult of Winding Refn. Cue for me to go and hurl myself from the tallest building I could find, while I still possessed at least a slim scintilla of original thought?

This is not what I ended up doing, mainly on account of me being every bit as massive a chicken as Peter Griffin's feathered arch-nemesis. I instead simply elected to catch up with those Winding Refn movies which I hadn't previously seen, with one of these being Fear X, the first English-language outing for the Danish director and such a cataclysmic monetary flop that it left him bankrupt.

That eventual personal disaster surely couldn't have seemed further off when Winding Refn embarked on the project around the turn of the millennium. For the filmmaker found himself collaborating on the screenplay with a man who was both a personal hero of his and one of the genuine trailblazers of modern American literature – Hubert Selby Jr., author of Last Exit to Brooklyn and Requiem for a Dream.

Yet despite the participation of so illustrious a creative luminary, and despite mostly decent reviews and numerous festival screening berths, Fear X turned out to be toxic at the box office, with its failure leaving Winding Refn in debt to the tune of one million dollars.

John Turturro is the star of the movie, featuring in nearly every scene till around the three-quarters-way-through point, at which juncture the focus shifts to another figure (or does it? Hmm...). He plays Harry Caine*, although why his character seems to be have been named as an amalgam of our very own national treasure, Sir Michael not a lot of people blow the bloody doors off Caine, and that actor's famed '60s super-spy, Harry Palmer, is not really apparent, unless it is meant to humorously highlight the Grand Canyon-like expanse between the nervous kook screen persona of Turturro and that of man's man Caine.

*(Nearly every review of Fear X that I've seen spells Harry's surname as 'Cain', although it is explicitly spelt with the concluding 'e' within the diagesis of the film.)

Harry is a security guard at a shopping mall in snowy Wisconsin, left trapped in a downward spiral of mild lunacy and choking obsession by the death of his wife, who was shot dead in the mall car park in a mysterious double-killing that also resulted in a police officer buying the farm. Determined to find out why his spouse was murdered, Harry spends his time reviewing video tapes from the shopping centre cameras which are supplied to him by a sympathetic co-worker, and covering one wall of his home in notes and photos that seem to offer tiny incremental clues to resolving the mystery.

At this stage of proceedings, with Harry constantly playing and rewinding blurry video images, it seems like we might be in for a semi-fresh iteration of the in-the-details homicidal enigma narrative (as previously exemplified by the classic triumvirate of Blow-up, Blow Out and The Conversation). Meanwhile, a swirling, churning soundtrack (to which Brian Eno contributed) is employed to imbue the suburban blankness with a sense of lingering dread, in best David Lynch fashion.

However the story take a significant turn when Harry feels himself compelled to explore the seemingly vacant house adjacent to his own, with this search yielding a strip of film which leads him to Montana, and a residential stint in an oppressively-decorated hotel that Winding Refn seems to purposefully position as some kind of hellish underworld. It's unusual to see Turturro entering this kind of environment in such a dark movie, given that he was trapped in an eminently comparable locale for his most famous role, as the title character in the Coen Brothers' Barton Fink (although, of course, then it was all played for yuks. Heil Hitler!).

As Harry hunts for the woman in one of the photographs developed from the found bit of film, the focus shifts to Peter Northrup (James Remar), a policeman who is seemingly revealed as belonging to a cabal of cops who dish out a fatal strain of vigilante justice, akin to David Soul and co in Magnum Force. I use the word 'seemingly' because the – MILD SPOILER ALERT – hugely ambiguous conclusion of Fear X suggested to me at least that Peter is some kind of fictional creation of Harry's, a confabulation necessary in order for him to emancipate himself from the hell he has been trapped in since the killing of his lover.

Having said that, I'm acutely aware my hypothesis is less than watertight, and although I will be watching the movie again to try and hone it further, my initial viewing of Fear X left me with the sense that, like Lost Highway, this is a film where a definitive reading is as much of an impossibility as roller skating up Mount Everest.

Glossing over questions of meaning then, and it is worth noting that Fear X is technically very accomplished, with an atmosphere of sinister unease being sustained very skilfully over the course of its relatively brief running time. The scene where Harry breaks into the house neighbouring his is a particularly tense one, and John Turturro is suitably bewildered as said central protagonist, having the perpetual air of a man who is trying to play a game to which he has not been told the rules.

As noted at the start of this article, Nicolas Winding Refn has gone on to bigger and better things since the must-have-been-chastening flop of Fear X, although that flopping did dictate his choice of projects for a period, as the resultant insolvency forced him into making a pair of sequels to his Danish debut feature, Pusher, strictly to get his mitts on some much-needed readies (he was subsequently able to find the artistic purpose in both the movies which emerged from this enforced arrangement).

The director's second stab at Hollywood glory is progressing far more smoothly than his first, with him next due to deliver Only God Forgives, a Bangkok-set 'modern western' (again starring Ryan Gosling), before he handles the Warner Bros. remake of Logan's Run (AGAIN starring Ryan Gosling). But will he ever re-team with his Fear X leading man, John Turturro? Well, it's reckoned there's a directing gig up for grabs on the Turturro-featuring Transformers franchise. Over to you, Nicolas...

Save from obscurity? YES.

Paul Martin is a writer for

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