Max Klein (Jeff Bridges) is a San Francisco architect who, along with his business partner, is on an ill-fated jet that has lost all hydraulic functions. As the plane wildly and rapidly descends, the passengers’ fear is illustrated by whispered prayers, tears, hand-holding, and undisguised terror. There is no doubt that the plane will crash and that there will be devastation and many fatalities. Only Max seems calm; he even leaves his seat to soothe a boy who is traveling alone. Moments following the crash, Max walks out of a cornfield carrying a baby in his arms and holding the boy’s hand. Other than looking a bit disheveled in his light colored linen suit, Max is unhurt. Around him there are screams, passengers down on the ground, mechanical debris, but Max is walking. He hands the baby to its grateful mother and leaves the young boy behind. Max keeps walking.
Winding up in a motel, Max finds that, other than a wound on his torso, he is in perfect condition. The placement of the gash on Max’s body is curious though, as it reminds me of the 17th-century Caravaggio painting The Incredulity of St. Thomas. In the painting, St. Thomas earns his name as a Doubter as he probes the wound on the body of the resurrected Jesus. Max may believe he is indeed resurrected as he escaped what was to be a certain death with little more than a scrape and some bruises. Even when asked by an EMT on the tarmac if he was on the plane, Max hesitates for a moment and says “no,” before walking away.
On his solo journey immediately following the crash, Max fully believes he has cheated death and is now invincible. He walks across the multiple lanes of the Golden Gate Bridge without a single moment of pause. He drives a rental car at top speed and in a moment of giddy elation he eats a strawberry. The simple bite of a strawberry at one time would have collapsed Max into an allergic heap, gasping for breath. When Max stops by the house of an old friend who he hasn’t seen for 20 years, they go out for a meal and Max orders a bowl of strawberries. His friend Alison (Debra Monk) tries to warn Max against eating the berry but he pops one after another into his mouth and just smiles. With the sweet fruit bursting in his mouth, he waits for a moment for the allergens to kick in but they do not, further convincing Max that he is immortal.
Max is content to be on his own in the post-crash days. One would think that, having survived such a trauma, Max would run back to his family and the comfort of home and hearth. But no, Max is on to a new chapter in his life, and it is only when he is tracked down by the FBI that he reluctantly returns home. The airline has assigned a psychologist to help Max with his post-crash transition. When Dr. Perlman (John Turturro) offers Max a train ticket for the journey home, Max balks and wants to fly! At home, Laura Klein (Isabella Rossellini) is stunned to see her husband and is tearfully grateful for his return. While his family tries to comfort Max, he increasingly requires danger, peril, threat, and menace to feel alive. Max shakes off Laura’s love and concern, believing that he can no longer connect to his family, friends, and, especially, Dr. Perlman.
Meanwhile, Dr. Perlman has another patient, Carla (Rosie Perez), who is nearly catatonic following the crash. Desperate to protect her baby during the moments before impact, Carla tries to calm the infant and holds the baby tight in her arms, but the force of the crash is too great and she loses her grip, leaving her forever guilty for her own survival. Unlike Max, Carla remains indoors, in the darkness of the apartment she shares with her husband Manny (Benicio Del Toro). No amount of coaxing or logic can move Carla to believe she did all she could to save her child. When Dr. Perlman introduces Max to Carla, they form a kind of walking-wounded connection. In his eccentric intrepidity, Max cajoles Carla outdoors and eventually she trusts him enough to unload her grief. Laura Klein fears that Max is falling in love with Carla, until Dr. Perlman tells her that what connects the pair is not love, but death.
In my view Max is a hopeless case for Dr. Perlman. Having bamboozled death, he is immune to reason and caution and embraces wild and foolish adventure and experiences. Astonishingly though, Max’s excess is the therapy that Carla requires to regain her emotional stability. In a most touching yet incongruous scene, Max is convinced he can finally prove to Carla that losing her grip on the baby was beyond her control. By deliberately driving his car into a brick wall, Max demonstrates that given the body’s automatic response to the impact, it would have been impossible for Carla to hold the baby as well as survive the crash. Again, the possibility of injury or his own death does not enter into Max’s reasoning when he devises this bizarre experiment, because he is genuinely convinced of his invulnerability and he is wholly determined to lift Carla’s burden. Of course Max winds up seriously hurt, and in one of the last scenes in the film he is visited by Carla in the garden of the hospital where he is recuperating from his injuries. Max and Carla will probably remain psychologically broken in some measure by the experiences they sustained in the plane crash. Having been banged up in the car crash, it is finally clear to Max that he is only human, lucky perhaps, but human. As for Carla, the world outside is no longer so bleak and she has accepted that she made a valiant effort to protect her baby in spite of the horrendous odds against any survival. (For her role as Carla, Perez earned a slew of awards, including a New York Film Critics Circle award, the Los Angeles Film Critics Circle award, and a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role.)
Fearless has often been called underrated, but the very contemplative nature of Weir’s film all but guaranteed that it wouldn’t break any box office records. I believe that much of the cool critical sentiment toward the film had to do with Bridges’s character. Max is not a nice guy. He does not grow all warm, fuzzy, and affable after his traumatic experience. Rather than the arc of his character softening in the post-crash days, Max is increasingly emboldened and reckless. He rejects his wife, lives with abandon, and doesn’t much care what people think about his injudicious actions. Bridges is sufficiently skilled to never engage in making Max soft for the audience to connect with him. One of the few moments of levity in Fearless is Max’s reunion with Alison. Perhaps this scene is meant to comment on a long-ago period in his life, when getting the oxytocin flowing meant an uncomplicated date with a down-to-earth girl out in the countryside rather than a life-altering jumbo-jet crash.
I recommend attending the MoMA screening of Fearless on July 27, as part of the series A View from the Vaults: Warner Bros. Today, so you can discover—or rediscover—this deceptively compelling film, and Bridges’s accomplished and complex performance.