Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn and written by Refn and Hubert Selby Jr. from an original story by Selby, Fear X is the story of a man who deals with strange visions that he believes has something to do with his wife’s murder. The film marks Refn’s first English-language feature following two features in his native Denmark. Starring John Turturro, Deborah Kara Unger, Stephen McIntyre, William Allen Young, and James Remar. Fear X is a very intriguing suspense film from Nicolas Winding Refn that loses its focus in its second half.
After the death of his wife in a shopping mall that he works at as a security cop, Harry Caine (John Turturro) is obsessed with finding out who killed her and why as he continuously searches through various security footage and pictures to find answers. After a friend in Phil (Stephen McIntyre) gives a video tape where Caine witnesses how his wife was killed as authorities ask him if his wife knew anyone. Caine suspects that the home that is across from his might know something due to surreal images he breaks in to find a strip of film on the floor. After uncovering the pictures that features a woman (Deborah Kara Unger) and a child, he learns that the pictures are from Montana as he travels to a small town to find answers.
Meanwhile, a lieutenant police officer named Peter Northrup (James Remar) has just been given a special award for his duties as his wife Kate watches in awe. Yet, Peter just learned that Harry is looking for Kate based on the photo he has where he reveals to his superiors about why Harry is here. With Harry getting closer to finding answers while dealing with the strange images in his head. He and Peter finally meet to discuss what happened to Harry’s wife.
The film is about a security mall cop who tries to figure out who killed his wife and why where he goes into this strange obsession to finding out who her killer is while a small town cop from Montana might have the answers. The film is about simply about fear, the fear of finding some awful truths and the fear of the guilt that is sweeping into a character. While it’s a premise that is interesting, screenwriters Nicolas Winding Refn and Hubert Selby Jr. don’t exactly create a payoff that is satisfying. While the first half of the story has this amazing narrative that follows Harry Caine weaving his way to find answers. The narrative then shifts a bit where Caine arrives in Montana as the focus is on this other man where things become messy and their eventual confrontation ends up being followed by moments that don’t make any sense.
Refn’s direction of the film is quite entrancing for the compositions he makes in the snowy locations of Winnipeg. Notably in how he sets a mood for Harry’s obsession in uncovering the mystery where there’s a great element of suspense as well a study into this man’s mind. One of the drawbacks of the film are these strange surreal montages that displays whether Harry is imagining things where it blurs the idea of reality and fiction. Some of which are seen as flashbacks but other times, it becomes confusing in the film’s second half to the point that it adds to the messiness of the narrative. When the film arrives in the second where Harry arrives in Montana, the focus on Peter starts forces the narrative to lose some momentum as if shifts back and forth for this eventual meeting.
While the compositions and the way Refn frames the meeting is interesting. It is followed by a very strange montage of visual images that really just hampers all of the tension. This would be followed by an ending that is very disappointing because it leaves more question than answers as it begs the question of whether Harry Caine’s obsession was imaginary or real. Overall, Refn creates a film that starts off very strong and then ends up into a huge mess where its payoff is a frustrating one.
Cinematographer Larry Smith does amazing work with the film‘s evocative cinematography from the lush interior settings he creates in the hotel hallway scenes to the gorgeous exteriors of the Winnipeg locations to play out the open-ended world of Montana. Editor Anne Osterud does nice work with the editing to play up the suspense of Caine‘s attempt to uncover the mystery along with some straightforward cuts to help intensify the drama. Production designer Peter De Neergaard, along with art directors Morten Isbrand and Rejean Labrie and set decorator Stephen Arndt, does terrific work with the set pieces created such as the hotel room that Caine stays at as well as the lovely hotel hallway that plays to the dark mood of the film.
Costume designer Darena Snowe does good work with the costumes as a lot of it is quite casual including the uniform that Harry wears when he works at the mall. Visual effects supervisor Morten Balling does some fine work with some of the visual effects montage that is quite surreal to look although they weren‘t really necessary. Sound designers Jens Bonding and Peter Schultz do superb work with the sound design from the calm atmosphere of Caine‘s home to the raucous world of the mall that Caine works at. The film’s score by Brian Eno and J. Peter Schwalm is wonderful for the way it plays out the tense atmosphere of the film with its chilling yet ethereal ambient score as it’s definitely some fantastic work from Eno who is the godfather of ambient music.
The casting by Carrie Hilton and Penny Perry is terrific for the ensemble that is created as it includes an appearance from Refn’s wife and Bleeder co-star Liv Corfixen as a hotel waitress as well as small roles from Amanda Ooms as a hooker, Mark Houghton as a diner cop, William Allen Young as an investigator who talks to Harry, Jacqueline Ramel as Harry’s late wife, and Stephen McIntyre as fellow security cop who helps Harry in providing security tapes. Deborah Kara Unger is practically wasted in her role as Peter’s wife Kate as she only appears in a couple of key scenes as she doesn’t get much to do but feel upset about what Peter could be hiding. James Remar is excellent as Lt. Peter Northrup who tries to deal with the news of Harry’s visit as Remar displays a great sense of anguish over what he could be hiding as well as the guilt he’s dealing with.
Finally, there’s John Turturro in an incredible performance as Harry Caine. It’s a performance where Turturro really gives a very understated approach to his character who is lost in his grief and determined to find answers for what happened. It’s truly mesmerizing in the way Turturro makes Caine into a character that audiences can sympathize with as he’s a man that isn’t about action but rather just someone seeking out some truth.
Despite some amazing images and John Turturro’s great performance, Fear X is a very underwhelming suspense film from Nicolas Winding Refn. While the film will feature compositions and a visual style that would be part of Refn’s later films. It’s a film that will disappoint fans of suspense films due to its incomprehensive second act and an ending that will leave everyone disgusted and confused. In the end, Fear X is a worthwhile but very frustrating film from Nicolas Winding Refn.
Nicolas Winding Refn Films: Pusher - Bleeder - Pusher II - Pusher 3 - Bronson - Valhalla Rising - Drive - Only God Forgives - The Neon Demon - The Auteurs #12: Nicolas Winding Refn
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