Movie Rehab: Jeff Bridges and Peter Weir both did career best work with ‘Fearless’

It is the responsibility of the working film critic to not only offer opinion and context for the newest releases, but also to constantly champion and curate the films that matter, especially if they were misunderstood or poorly released or somehow handled badly the first time around.

Critics should take it upon themselves to rehabilitate the under-loved, to defend the wrongly-maligned, and rehab the films that need it; it is the only way film as a whole can be healthy.

It’s easy to be a Jeff Bridges fan today.

After all, Bridges has passed into the “national treasure” phase of his career now, where he is celebrated simply for the majesty of being Jeff Goddamn Bridges. As he should be, certainly, but this is often the era in an actor’s career where I am less excited by the work they’re doing. Johnny Depp is in this same phase of things, although at a very different point in his life, and in many ways, the two men are similar right now. They both alternate between good performances that prove why they are who they are and vicious self-parody so raw that you wonder if they’re enjoying any of it.

For my money, some of the best things Bridges ever did went ignored by the mainstream, modest hits at best. I’ve written here before about my adoration of “Tucker: The Man And His Dream,” and he’s amazing in the film. I think he is so brilliant in “The Fisher King” that it’s hard to look at. I think he’s great in “American Heart,” playing someone who is just flayed emotionally. Even in the difficult “Texasville,” Bridges plays things in a naked, unadorned way that threatens to make that stiff of a movie work.

The film that best captures and showcases what I call that “raw nerve” version of Bridges, though, was Peter Weir’s “Fearless,” and Warner Archive recently put the film out on Blu-ray for the first time. They were good enough to send one over, and I took the plunge back into the movie, adapted from his own very good book by Rafael Iglesias, for the first time since it played theaters. I was curious to see if I would be as fond of it, as struck by it, as I was in 1993. It was one of my very favorite films that year, and that was a pretty big year overall. But 20 years ago, Jeff Bridges was not anywhere near the widely loved and accepted movie star that he is today, and “Fearless” never really got a fair shake.

That baffles me. Not only is it a great Bridges performance, it’s a very special film overall, one of my favorite things that Weir has ever done. Now that the film is available on Blu-ray, I feel compelled to beat the drum a bit and insist that people go back and check it out. Revisiting it myself for the first time in a while, I was struck anew by just how structurally elegant and compelling it is. It opens in a cornfield, smoke hugging the stalks, and then people begin to emerge, moving slowly, dazed. Max (Bridges) holds one young boy by the hand, clutches a baby close, and little by little, they are joined by other people, all of them emerging into a larger clear area where they can see the wreckage of the plane crash they just survived.

The entire film is designed to make us feel the way Bridges feels on the heels of this life-altering event. There are so many small touches that put us in his head, things like a subtle bit of speed-ramping or the way sound bleeds in or out of a scene, and it’s an incredibly immersive experience. Max walks away from the crash, half convinced he didn’t really survive it, and as he begins to try to put his life back together, it’s obvious that something profound has happened to him. He eats a full bowl of strawberries despite his life-long allergy to them, daring death to come for him after what he’s survived. The flashbacks that Weir peppers throughout the film of the crash itself are my worst nightmare as a frequent flier, impeccably staged, and there are a ton of details you have to pay close attention to, not only for the sake of Max, but regarding all of the characters.

This is a film that could only be told this way in the days before 9/11. Nothing about the air travel we see here is the way air travel works now. If you walked away from the scene of a crash and the FBI came to track you down, it wouldn’t be so they could take you home to your family. It would be so they could disappear you down some dark hole where they could take their time with some enhanced interrogation designed to get you to tell them how and why you caused the crash.

Rosie Perez has never been given any real respect by this industry. She’s been treated like a 21st century Charo in those few moments they’ve paid any attention to her at all, and yet, I think she brings an original presence to the films she’s been in, and given a piece of material like this, she digs in and offers up something so uncomfortable that it’s hard to witness. There’s a moment where she sniffs the hair of a baby in a mall, and the way Weir shoots it is haunting and beautiful.

For my money, though, the star of the film is Rafael Iglesias. I love this script. I envy this script. When I read the novel, I called my agent the next morning and asked him to find out if anyone had optioned the book yet. I had no idea they were almost done with production at the time, and it broke my heart a little. It is a carefully constructed piece of writing, and yet it makes it all look invisible, spontaneous. The way Iglesias sets up things and then pays them off is dazzling.

The best example is the way Carla’s story pays off in that scene where she melts down after her long day at the mall with Max. The way he solves the situation and the way it builds off of his earlier impulse to “buy presents for the dead” is totally unexpected, but a tremendous emotional beat. By now, U2 may seem played out, but Weir laid them in there not because of how many records they sold but for that emotional build that was part of the songs that really made them icons.

It’s even more true of the Gorecki Symphony that he uses towards the end of the movie. That is one of the most intense pieces of music I believe has ever been written, a cycle of rising and falling dynamics that washes over you like a physical things when you hear it performed. The last stretch of this movie, as everything comes together and as we finally see Max come nose to nose with the death he’s been courting since frame one, is pure visual storytelling, a case where a screenwriter laid out a beautiful meal for a director, and the director takes his time, gets every part of it right, and instead of feeling show-offy and artificial, the control that Weir exerts wrings every possible feeling out of me every time I see the film.

I hope you’ll give this a chance if you haven’t seen it, and that if you have, you’ll back me up on just how good it is.

Wednesday, January 29, be back here for the next installment of “Movie Rehab.” In general, I’m planning to shift the columns from Monday-Wednesday to Wednesday-Friday. I’ll have a new “Take Two” up this Friday morning for Oliver Stone’s “JFK,” but at that point, Sundance will be all over us, and I’ll take next week off completely. There’s going to be plenty of stuff to discuss in the meantime.

MOVIE REHAB: “Gladiator”

When we return, the next film will be Brian De Palma’s 1989 “Casualties Of War.”