Dir: Nicolas Winding Refn. Denmark-UK. 2002. 91mins.
Abandoning the mean streets of the Copenhagen underworld to make his first American-set feature film, Nicolas Winding Refn has crafted an intensely eerie psycho-drama that plays unnerving mind-games with the audience right through to its ambiguous and rather abrupt end. Evoking at times David Lynch's own disorientating dreamscapes, Fear X's cryptic storytelling approach will limit its theatrical appeal to specialised audiences worldwide who demand rather more from their murder thrillers than spoon-fed plot twists, two-dimensional archetypes or, indeed, tidy resolutions. All in all, the ingredients also for one noirish trip of a DVD commentary track.
Any doubts that there is more to new Danish cinema than digital video and Dogme 95 are firmly put to rest with Fear X, a stylistic departure for director Refn after the success of his first two gritty verite-style local-language films Pusher and Bleeder. That Refn was striving to stretch the generic boundaries with his English-language debut becomes quickly apparent through his choice of collaborators. His co-writer is Hubert Selby Jr, whose best-known novels are the bleakly realistic Last Exit To Brooklyn and the hallucinatory junkie parable, Requiem For A Dream, which he also adapted for the screen. The hauntingly minimal score comes courtesy of Brian Eno, the English avant-garde musician. And the cinematographer is Larry Smith, a long-time collaborator of the late Stanley Kubrick's who was the lighting cameraman on Eyes Wide Shut.
Together, this prodigiously talented troupe transform the nondescript Wisconsin shopping mall where John Turturro's brooding character works as a security guard into a menacing cross-section of middle America. The knowledge that violence can lurk around any corner here is etched on this man's psyche: his own wife was shot to death in the mall and now he is determined to track down the killer and unearth the elusive reasons why.
Like the best whodunit mysteries, discovering the murderer's actual identity and motivation are never nearly as interesting as the suspenseful journey taken in gathering those clues. In some of the most mesmerising scenes, which recall some of the paranoia in Coppola's The Conversation, the traumatised Turturro is seen obsessively scrutinising every shred of surveillance tape he can lay his hands on in the hope of piecing together fragmentary evidence.
Audiences get their own clue that this particular screen journey is anything but straightforward when Turturro, on a hunch, breaks into his neighbour's house and finds a series of photographs that lead him to Montana. Once there, he checks into a hotel that becomes ever more surreal, and the storyline ever more of a mental leap. The red colour scheme along the corridors, together with frequent lapses into nightmare imagery and the sudden appearance of seductive woman of the night, seems straight out of the Lynchian cannon of weirdness. All that is missing is a dwarf and a torch-song singer.
It is not giving too much away to suggest that much of what is happening towards the end is a reflection of Turturro's own state-of-mind. How much of what the audience sees is the product of his own frenzied fantasies, and how much actual events, should be left to the viewers to decide for themselves. Those schooled in baroquely-plotted American thrillers may well find the conclusion a little too quick in coming, barely allowing them any time to form their own tentative stabs at the truth before the credits roll. But this film is best taken, not as a murder mystery, but as a haunting character study rooted in a superbly withheld performance from Turturro and a sinister sense of atmosphere and place. Fear X speaks volumes of Refn's gift for capturing milieu that none of the scenes were actually filmed in the United States: all its exteriors were shot in Canada, taking advantage of Manitoba's tax fund, while interiors were completed in Denmark.
Prod co: NWR, Nordisk Film, Danish Film Institute, TV2/Denmark, EMDA, Moviehouse, Imago Film, Matrix Film Finances
Int'l sales: Moviehouse Entertainment
Exec prods: Rupert Preston, Kenneth Plummer, Joseph Cohen, Gary Phillips, Mark Vennis
Prod: Henrik Danstrup
Co-prod: Aaron Kim Johnson
Scr: Nicolas Winding Refn, Hubert Selby Jr
Cinematography: Larry Smith
Music: Brian Eno, J. Peter Schwalm
Main cast: John Turturro, Deborah Unger, James Remar, Amanda Ooms