Fear X is a film that crawls just beneath your flesh that is both compelling and frustrating all at once. John Turturro’s performance in the lead as a grief-stricken mall cop shows how much acting can be accomplished simply in the eyes. Turturro is an actor who can crank it up and claw at the scenery with great effect, or tone it down to the level he does here, where he can form mental scar tissue with a simple look.
Co-written by director Nicolas Winding Refn and novelist Hubert Selby Jr. (the author behind Requiem for a Dream and Last Exit to Brooklyn), and released in 2003, Fear X finds Turturro’s protagonist, Harry Caine, suffering in the wake of the shooting death of his wife in the parking lot of the mall where he works. Killed alongside a D.E.A. agent she apparently didn’t know, Harry finds the circumstance surrounding his wife’s death to be shrouded in mystery, and obsessively combs through mall security tapes in an effort to find the killer. After unearthing a few loose clues, Harry finds himself in Montana looking for a mystery woman (Deborah Kara Unger) who may or may not know the man who pulled the trigger. But as Harry finds himself closer to discovering the answers he desperately seeks, more questions pop up as his initial quest slowly turns into a frightening photo-negative of itself.
The story in Fear X is not unlike one’s we’ve heard before, but what sets it apart from the rest is that it is not a revenge movie (also, it’s probably the only serious movie about a mall cop in existence). Harry isn’t a character Hell-bent on killing the bastard who shot his wife and subsequently submerged him in a sea of pain. “I’m not a murderer,” Harry informs people privy to what he’s doing. His motives are far less cliched, but somehow more terrifying because of it. Harry simply wants to know why his wife was shot and killed, searching for ideal answers to tough questions in a chaotic reality.
The third act of Fear X is where the movie’s oppressive tone of dread comes to a fever pitch, helped in large part by the score by Brian Eno and J. Peter Schwalm, as well as Kubrick vet Larry Smith’s cinematography. Where it ends up going narratively sets it apart, as most will find its refusal to provide answers to the questions posed frustrating. David Mamet said that drama explores topics the way we explore them in dreams, the topics are discussed, but it isn’t necessarily up to the dramatist to answer those questions. Today, movies rarely do anything but attempt to supply answers, for fear of facing the wrath of the audience. Fear X‘s refusal to do so is initially jarring because of this, but thanks to its resolve, it ultimately it haunts you the way truly good movies do.