Review: “Fear X (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2003)”


by Jason Callen

During the day, Harry dreams about his murdered wife, seeing her in small domestic situations which he cannot control. During the night, in those rare moments when insomnia releases its grip, he dreams of red, and of indistinguishable faces. These nightmares are fed through his obsession with the video footage taken the day of his wife’s murder, which took place at the mall where he is a security guard. Through a co-worker he is able to obtain these tapes which he takes home and ritualistically watches, pausing to take pictures of suspicious shoppers, which he then enlarges, prints, and puts on an index card with accompanying writing that we never know the nature of. These cards form a web of agony that takes up an entire wall of Harry’s home. Could one of them be the killer? Could he even identify anyone based on these distorted pictures? All he wants are answers, but his efforts only perpetuate his grief. And so it goes for the first portion of the film, playing as a sort of more personal version of Antonioni’s BLOW-UP where closer scrutiny only creates more mystery, and more sorrow.


Then something unexpected happens; Harry finds a legitimate lead. It isn’t much but it’s enough to send him on a trip from his home in Wisconsin to Montana where he investigates the potential. Shortly after his arrival in the small Montana town Harry’s efforts to pursue his lead are noticed by the police. It is here that Refn and co-writer Hubert Selby Jr. divert the story from investigative narrative, which had never been the ultimate destination for this film anyways.


Since Stanley Kubrick’s death nearly two decades ago a handful of filmmakers have been heralded as “the next Kubrick” or “the heir to Kubrick,” Refn among them (David Fincher, Christopher Nolan, and Lars Van Trier are some others). While I personally think that none of these filmmakers have created anything on par with Kubrick, Refn is the one who comes closest to evoking the feel of Kubrick through his imagery. Here that desire is aided by working with cinematographer Larry Smith, who was Director of Photography on Kubrick’s final film EYES WIDE SHUT (and would go on to shoot BRONSON and ONLY GOD FORGIVES for Refn). The gold and red lighting schemes, particular toward the end of the film, evoke both EYES WIDE SHUT and THE SHINING, with the latter getting a direct visual reference. These evocations could come across as cheap appropriations of style (as I feel they do in some of Refn’s later work) but in this case the narrative, themes, atmosphere, and quality of the acting are strong enough to play as respectful homage and not a desperate attempt at style cribbing.


Harry’s color-laden nightmares culminate in an off-screen moment where Refn and Selby again deny us any kind of traditional climax. Instead Refn and editor Anne Østerud cut to the aftermath where more off-screen activity plays a crucial role and ultimately leave the film’s final interpretation ambiguous. Eschewing narrative expectations in favor of mood is always a bold choice. To do it in your first English language film is even more so. Unfortunately for Refn the gamble didn’t pay off as FEAR X bombed (despite favorable reviews) and sank his company Jang Go Star. It’s a shame because it contains one of John Turturro’s best performances in the role of Harry. Baggy eyed and exhausted he drifts through a life while by his own admission, “not really living.” Refn compliments that state of mind with his visual and narrative approach and furthers this mood piece with the assistance of Brian Eno and J. Peter Schwalm’s minimalist ambient score. It too refuses to adhere to the conventions of modern genre scores.


While not a perfect film, FEAR X is the closest (with the possible exception of THE NEON DEMON) Refn has come to integrating his style with his story. The waking and actual nightmares represented here support both his indulgences and the minimalist nature of the screenplay. Like him or not Refn is at least interested and willing to forgo excessive exposition for visual storytelling, something sorely lacking in today’s cinematic environment. I for one would rather be frustrated by a filmmaker that takes some chances than bored by one who relies on popular conventions.