The Peter Weir we have today is one that seems to take his time releasing new films. It’s been four years since The Way Back, more than ten since Master and Commander, and nearly twenty since The Truman Show. Those most recent films of his are pretty great across the board, and perhaps the time and care taken with each is a major reason why. This wasn’t always the case with Weir, though: he released five films in the 1980s alone (Gallipoli, The Year of Living Dangerously, Witness, The Mosquito Coast, and Dead Poets Society), all of which were fantastic, and he had a pretty productive early ’90s too.
The film that forms the divide between super-productive Weir and less-so Weir seems to be Fearless, a 1993 drama starring Jeff Bridges as a plane crash survivor. For whatever reason, Weir took more time off following Fearless than he had since he first started directing (although one might find it hard to believe it was truly “time off”). From then on, a new Weir film would be all the more cherished for the infrequency now associated with it.
But that’s just a somewhat interesting consideration, and likely one that has nothing at all to do with Fearless. Bridges is Max Klein, husband, father, plane-rider, and man irrevocably changed by the harrowing crash of his routine domestic flight. Appearances to the contrary, Fearless doesn’t exactly follow the arrogant-selfish-guy-awakens-to-true-meaning-of-life formula — which is good, because Bridges had already played that to perfection two years earlier in The Fisher King — and instead focuses almost exclusively on post-crash Max. We see a glimpse or two of him as he rides the doomed plane, but it’s not enough to make us think he’s an asshole. He very well might be, but that’s beside the point.
Because of this, Max’s story begins at the moment of his would-be death (the crash) and takes place in a strange and atmospheric world that seems totally new to Max. Part of him believes he’s truly invincible now, which he proves (to us, but also largely to himself) by eating a bowl of strawberries a few hours after emerging from the burning wreckage. Max is allergic to strawberries — or at least the old Max was — and as he munches gleefully on the juicy red fruit it seems he actually is invincible.
But although you’re feeling M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable a little too close for comfort, it’s Weir, as usual, who’s subtly highlighting the real story in the undercurrent of what appears on the surface to resemble a dreamy afterworld narrative. Weir and writer Rafael Yglesias emphasize lines of dialogue in such a way that they can be read two ways. Max shrugs during the strawberries scene and says, “See? No reaction”, and the camera lingers for a significant second following that line. Later that day he asks an inquisitive policeman if he’s under arrest, and the cop shakes his head. “No,” he says. “You haven’t done anything.”
Loaded lines like that might seem heavy-handed when they’re written out here, but in the context of Fearless they usually come and go with the perfect amount of subtlety. Certain attempts overstretch, especially Max’s son repeatedly saying “I’m dead. I died” while playing his video game, but overall they manage to sneak the real story in without the viewer feeling overburdened: Max is only invincible, only alive until he can accomplish something (in his case, consoling the mother of a young child killed in the crash). At the close of the film Max eats another strawberry and his throat closes up — he’s saved someone, done something real, and now it’s his turn to let himself be saved.
Bridges is great as Max, willing and able to convey that mixture of confusion and wonder from the moment he staggers out of the fuselage, and under Weir’s direction he’s able to make us feel that wonder as well. While it’s not his best film, Fearless is still brimming with the passion and emotion characteristic of most everything directed by Peter Weir.