From Blowup to Blow Out, from The Conversation to Memento, there has been a unique breed of movie thriller devoted to the unattainability of truth and the obsessive paranoia of those who seek it. These are movies for a nation raised on Watergate and the JFK assassination, movies that treat the question of "Whodunit?" as if it were a koan and leave the audience pondering aloud, What was in that photograph/audiotape/toilet bowl?
Aspiring to a place on the list of such films is Fear X, the result of a collaboration between the young Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn (Pusher, Bleeder) and the late cult novelist Hubert Selby Jr. (Last Exit to Brooklyn, Requiem for a Dream). And though it may not be as timeless as its forebears, it's still an elegantly creepy mindfuck that will give existential junkies a good stiff fix of ambiguity. Set amid the vast flatlands of the American Midwest, Fear X is - loosely - the story of Harry Caine (John Turturro), a security guard at a Wisconsin shopping mall who's reeling from the recent death of his pregnant wife, Claire (Jacqueline Ramel), who was gunned down in the mall's parking lot by an unseen assailant. Ever since then, Harry's life has evolved into a single-minded quest. By day, he roams the mall like one of George Romero's zombies, making shoppers nervous with his accusatory stare. By night, he pores endlessly over surveillance-camera videos from the day of the crime. It's a nocturnal existence lived in fast-forward and reverse, as he scours the frames and the intermittent bits of digital noise, certain that if he looks long enough, hard enough, deep enough, he'll eventually stumble upon the breakthrough he's looking for.
Eventually, Harry does just that. Or thinks he does, in the corner of a still photograph enlarged under a magnifying glass and reflected into a mirror. Or maybe he's just seeing what he wants to see. For like another Harry - the hedonist Harry White from Selby's celebrated novel The Demon - Harry Caine is a man for whom the separation between internal and external reality has all but ceased to exist. Still, Harry hits the road for Montana, sure that a decorated local policeman (James Remar) and his wife (Deborah Unger) hold the key to his all-consuming mystery.
Employing minimal dialogue and methodical pacing, the early passages of Fear X exert an unusual pull. Like Harry, Refn is a detail fetishist, and though he tends to wear his influences on his sleeve - David Lynch and Stanley Kubrick (whose longtime gaffer, Larry Smith, shot the picture) in particular - he has an undeniable knack for evoking the creepiness of carefully ordered places that seem untouched by human hands. It is, in effect, as though we are seeing the world through Harry's own eyes, with shopping malls and hotels transformed into forbidding, conspiratorial oases. At its deftest, Fear X jests at the trust we put, as people and as moviegoers, in the truthfulness of images.
Unfortunately, Refn and Selby don't quite stay the course. When Fear X gets to Montana, the characters start to talk more, and a far less abstract narrative begins to materialize, up to and including a wholly unnecessary explanation of the how and why of Claire's death. At which point, our free fall down the movie's intriguing rabbit hole abruptly stops. Turturro, however, never wavers in his commitment to a role that deprives him of nearly all his actorly tools. In fact, it is precisely at those moments when he is forced to be quiet and still, to slink around the frame's edges imperceptibly, like a serpent in the grass, that Turturro draws us most powerfully to him. He keeps Fear Xfascinating, practically in spite of itself.
FEAR X | Directed by NICOLAS WINDING REFN | Written by REFN and HUBERT SELBY JR. | Produced by HENRIK DANSTRUP | Released by Verve Pictures | At the Fairfax