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Film / Fearless (1993)

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Some people are afraid of nothing.

Fearless is a 1993 film directed by Peter Weir, based on the novel by Rafael Yglesias. Told in flashback format, the story centers around a plane crash survivor who loses his fear of death during the disaster and becomes unable to relate to the living, including his own family, as a result.

Max Klein (Jeff Bridges) and his business partner are on a flight from San Francisco to Houston when the plane suffers a catastrophic hydraulic failure and crashes in a cornfield near Bakersfield, CA. Many passengers die in the fiery wreck, including an infant belonging to Carla Rodrigo (Rosie Perez). In the midst of the chaotic aftermath and rescue operation, Max calmly hails a cab and drives away, to be found a day later by FBI agents investigating his disappearance. They return him home to his wife, Laura (Isabella Rossellini) and son Jonah, who are overjoyed to learn that he survived.

Intercut with flashbacks of the flight before and during the disaster, the story revolves around the relationship between Max and Carla after being introduced by psychiatrist Bill Pearlman (John Turturro). Carla, overwhelmed by guilt over the death of her baby, sees no point in living, while Max claims that the crash was the best thing that ever happened to him, though his deteriorating relationship with his family proves otherwise. Unable to relate to anyone else, Max and Carla form an odd friendship that might allow both of them to return to the realm of the living... as long as Max's explorations of his new-found fearlessness doesn't kill him first.

No relation to the 2006 Jet Li movie of the same name.

Contains examples of:

  • Ambulance Chaser: Attorney Steven Brillstein is there to milk the airline for every cent, even if it means encouraging survivors to embellish or lie.
  • Amoral Attorney: Steven Brillstein (Tom Hulce) does everything he can to ensure that the plane crash victims get every dollar coming to them, so he can get every dollar coming to him. He's not above coaching his clients to remember the worst details about the crash, or using a dead child to increase the settlement with the airline.
  • Blasphemous Boast:
    • To god, after Max survives the crash and commits what amounts to a suicide attempt by walking into traffic: "You can't do it! You want to kill me but you can't!"
    • Later, when talking to Carla.
      Max: Didn't you read the papers? Everybody who was with me lived.
      Carla: So, what are you telling me? There's no god, but there's you?
  • Dead All Along: What Max believes himself to be, at first. He has to convince himself he's alive after the crash.
  • Death by Flashback: The only time Max's partner is ever seen, though the effect his death has on his family is shown.
  • Death of a Child: The death of Carla's baby as well as several other children shown to be on the plane during the flashbacks.
  • Death Seeker: After narrowly surviving the plane crash, Max believes that he's not truly alive. He keeps gambling with his life to test out his hypothesis, such as walking into traffic, dangling off the edge of a rooftop, and eating food that he's deathly allergic to. He only recovers at the end after going through a second Near-Death Experience.
  • Flashback: A major part of the narrative. The film begins with the aftermath of the crash and as the story progresses, scenes on the plane before and during the accident bring a deeper understanding to why Max is acting the way he does. This style was imitated in the TV series Lost, down to the audio cue of a roaring jet engine as a segue into the flashback as the character remembers.
  • Good Samaritan: Max is labeled as this by the press as well as other survivors for leading many of the passengers out of the flaming wreckage.
  • Hero of Another Story: The flashbacks to the crash focus on Max, but several lines also make it clear that the pilot (who is only briefly seen and whose fate is unclear) is working hard to land the plane intact during those scenes. Max himself thinks that there wouldn't have been anyone for him to save if the pilot had done a poorer job.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Max becomes crass and irresponsible after surviving the plane crash. However, he clearly has compassion for the other survivors, and during the crash itself he saved several people's lives. The problem is, his sense of responsibility towards the fellow passengers causes him to neglect his own family.
  • Left Hanging: Several plot threads are brought up during a support group meeting of survivors. A woman tries to learn how her son died, another woman who lost several relatives in the crash wanting to meet Max to thank him for saving the rest of the family, and the stewardess who gave Carla wrong advice about how to protect her son before the crash wants to talk to her but is reluctant to admit her mistake. None of these are resolved in the film.
  • Near-Death Experience: What triggers Max's loss of fear. But it's not what he really thinks it is, or wants it to be.
  • Obi-Wan Moment: As the plane is going down, passengers are screaming and crying. Max sees the sun flicker through the window and is overtaken by an immense feeling of calm, and all the noise and confusion around him fades to nothing.
    This is it. This is the moment of your death.
  • Outliving One's Offspring: Carla has lost her infant son in the crash, causing her to struggle with immense feelings of Survivor Guilt.
  • Survivor Guilt: Carla, in spades. Also, many of the passengers at Dr. Pearlman's group session.
    • Zigzagged in the case of Max. While he believes that surviving the crash unscathed was the best thing that ever happened to him, it's obvious that his subsequent behavior is abnormal and probably just as much driven by survivor guilt as the others, even if Max doesn't acknowledge it.
  • Talking to the Dead: A variant. Max takes Carla to a mall so they can go Christmas shopping. Carla, for her dead baby, and Max, for his dead father. They get into the spirit so much that other people only see a happy couple buying gifts for their loved ones.
  • Tears of Joy: In the last scene, after Max nearly dies but is revived by his wife, he cries joyfully as he repeatedly shouts "I'm alive!"
  • Trailers Always Lie: The trailer depicts an inspirational, life-affirming story of a man learning to live life to the fullest after surviving a catastrophe, complete with scenes of dancing and laughter set to U2's "Where the Streets Have No Name." In reality, the story is much darker in tone, focuses heavily on the grief of the survivors, and the protagonist is definitely not a happy man.
  • Uncertain Doom: Since not all of the survivors are among the people who Max gets out of the plane and through the cornfield, and not every survivor attends the group meeting, it is unclear whether some of the people from the plane flashbacks (the pilots, the cabin stewardess, a woman and her daughter, a couple praying right before the crash, etc.) survive.
  • Wham Shot:
    • The movie begins with Max leading a group of dirty, disheveled people through a hazy corn field in silence. They emerge onto a dirt road where a group of migrant workers are on their knees in prayer. The camera pans to show the giant tail section of the crashed airliner burning in the corn, with rescue workers running toward them.
    • Laura Klein tries to find out what project Max is obsessed with in his home office. She assumes it's work related, but after Max is admitted to the hospital after a car accident she sneaks into his office and goes through the drawings on his desk. She flips through an endless series of drawings and paintings he's done of a dark tunnel leading to light, one after another. The camera lingers on her face as she realizes Max may actually want to die.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: There's a happy ending for Max, and it's implied that Carla is on the mend as well, but we never find out what became of many of the traumatized lesser characters, such as Byron, the boy who Max rescued and who was implied to have developed a stronger bond with Max than with his own father.
  • Zen Survivor: What Max thinks he is, but really he's as lost and detached as Carla, but for different reasons.