Jeff Bridges is one of Hollywood’s most underrated talents. He acts with a natural ease, projecting the sort of likability, warmth and sex appeal that leading men are made of. But in recent years, Bridges has subverted his affable image with
the cunning of a character actor. Never repeating himself, he has taken one offkilter role after another. Playing a murderer in Jagged Edge (1985), he used his charm as a ruse. As a car inventor in Tucker (1988), he amplified it to create a blaring parody of American overconfidence. In The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989), his charisma smouldered behind a hard-baked ego. Then, in The Fisher King (1991), Bridges let loose as a burned-out radio host who falls in with a schizophrenic.
The actor’s best work has been overshadowed—by Michelle Pfeiffer in Baker Boys and by Robin Williams in Fisher King. But with his new movie, Fearless, there is no danger of that. Bridges gives the performance of his career in an exceptionally juicy role. He plays a San Francisco architect who has delusions of invincibility after surviving a plane crash. Directed by Australia’s Peter Weir (Witness, Dead Poets Society), the movie simulates the rapture of a near-death experience. It is by turns harrowing, hallucinatory and deeply moving.
The film examines fear of death with microscopic intensity. And for Bridges, it is an opportunity to explore the basic chemistry of acting, the sliding scale of vulnerability. “So much of my work deals with fear, whether magnifying it or breaking through it,” he told Maclean’s recently in Los Angeles. “Fear of embarrassment is something that actors come up against all the time. Sometimes it’s nice to just let it freak you out, or to pop right through it. You play with it—it becomes a friend that you get to know better over the years.”
Fearless opens in a cornfield in southern California. Max (Bridges) has just crawled from the wreckage of a plane crash, guiding fellow passengers to safety. Fleeting images of debris convey the random nature of what survives and what does not: an unbroken champagne bottle clattering across the ground, a stray cowboy boot, a metal wristwatch on a charred arm.
Max wanders away from the scene, rents a
car and drives to Los Angeles, where he looks up an old friend. He does not even bother calling his wife and son in San Francisco. He is locked in the euphoria of being alive, a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder.
When he finally makes it home, Max leaves his family in the dust while indulging his new passion for life—and cheating death. He strolls through heavy traffic; he balances on
the roof of a building. Max has lost all fear. He has also lost all patience with the false promises, and premises, of civilization—he has contempt for both the thera-
pist assigned to him by the airline Qohn Turturro) and the lawyer seeking damages for the crash (Tom Hulee). Max’s wife, Laura (Isabella Rossellini), is compassionate. But she becomes alarmed when her husband finds a soul mate in another crash survivor, a pretty young Puerto Rican named Carla (Rosie Perez). Carla is devastated by grief after losing her toddler son in the crash, and Max takes it upon himself to save her.
Fearless has some forced moments, most of them in a contrived scene where Max and Carla buy Christmas presents for the dead. But on the whole, the movie sidesteps cliché and sentiment while Weir stares down life’s
“big questions” with transcendental wit. Wisely, he places the crash scene at the end of the film, as a flashback that unfolds to the ineffably sad and spiritual Symphony No. 3 by Henryk Górecki.
The movie has religious dimensions—as Carla’s death-defying savior, Max is a consummate Christ figure—but the drama is grounded by the complexity of the characters. In an astounding departure from playing featherweight girlfriends, Perez acts up a storm with a soul-baring, heartrending performance. And Rossellini, as a wife who refuses to be a victim, finally has a dignified role that does justice to her intelligence. But the movie belongs to Bridges, whose keenly focused performance lights up the drama on multiple levels—from metaphysics to marital conflict. On one level, the crash hits Max like a monstrous mid-life crisis: after 16 years of marriage, he puts wife and family on hold to look for cosmic relief.
Bridges, 43, has himself been married 16
years. When the coincidence is pointed out, he laughs and says that it never occurred to him. In preparing for Fearless, however, the actor did delve
into his past—all the way back to his birth. In the delivery room, his mother had an allergic reaction to a spinal anesthetic. “My heart started to stop, and her heart started to stop,” he says. “The doctor had to slap her awake. I don’t know how you can remember something like that. But when my mother was telling me this, I was recalling it.” Adds Bridges: “In one sense, we’re born in each moment. We have that choice. We can accept the change or resist it, but the change is going down.” In Fearless, Bridges meets it head on.
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