This 1993 film starring Jeff Bridges and Rosie Perez illuminates some unexpected ways that grief and trauma alter its sufferers.
Jamie Raskin’s got it. Nick Cave, too. I’ve got it. And in Peter Weir’s 1993 classic, Fearless, Max Klein has it.
Thanks to trauma and loss, we are, like the movie title says, fearless. But we’d relinquish this superpower in a heartbeat, if our lives could rewind.
When US Representative Jamie Raskin was in the Capitol during the tumult of January 6, 2021, he faced the possibility of life-ending violence with surprising calm and clarity. He thought to himself, What was there to be afraid of when the worst thing imaginable had already happened? You see, his son Tommy had taken his own life six days previously.
Australian singer/songwriter Nick Cave lost his son Arthur in a horrible freak accident. In its aftermath, Cave discovered “a strange reckless power…as if the worst had happened and nothing could hurt us.” Cave has channeled that reckless power into the gutting, transcendent music of his albums Skeleton Tree and Ghosteen, and his vulnerable online writing at Red Hand Files.
I’m no Cave or Raskin, but in the aftermath of my son’s suicide, I’m not afraid anymore. Sometimes I’m foolhardy, walking through urban parks alone after dark, or exploring boulder-strewn tide pools in areas known for rogue waves. Sometimes I’m principled and heedless of consequences, writing to journalists about a corrupt healthcare system while I’m still its employee. For me, too, the worst has already happened, so who cares about getting battered around or losing my job?
Max Klein exemplifies this mental state cranked to 11 in Fearless. The film opens with Max (Jeff Bridges) walking through a smoky cornfield, carrying a baby and holding a boy’s hand. Only after a couple of moments does the camera show enough for us to realize Max and the kids have just survived a plane crash. In a pitch-perfect performance by Bridges, Max looks positively serene. Or is he numbed by the shock?
As directed by Peter Weir from Rafael Yglesias’ novel and screenplay, the film follows Max in the months following the crash. With truth and sensitivity, we observe trauma’s effects on Max, his wife Laura (Isabella Rossellini), and their son Jonah (Spencer Vrooman). Drawn into their orbit are fellow crash survivors Carla (Rosie Perez) and Byron (Daniel Cerny), the boy from the first scene.
Peter Weir is rightly famous for the hyperrealism he brought to dramas like Witness and Master and Commander. This tone is ideal for the intermittent flashbacks to the crash itself, just short of unbearable in their intensity.
However, this hyperrealism doesn’t undermine the acting. Weir has drawn career-best performances from Jim Carrey (The Truman Show), Robin Williams (Dead Poets Society), and Harrison Ford (Witness and The Mosquito Coast). This is true here, especially when it comes to Bridges and Perez.
If it hasn’t been done already, a dissertation could be written contrasting trauma’s effects on their characters. (This is as good a time as any to mention that my own analysis will contain spoilers.) Rosie Perez’s Carla lost her year-old son Bubble in the crash. Severely depressed, wishing for death, Carla is bunkered in her bedroom. With its prolific candles and photos of Bubble, her insensitive husband Manny (Benicio Del Toro) disparages it as a “fucking tomb.” Carla is mired in guilt up to her nostrils, holding herself responsible for Bubble’s death.
Max is the polar opposite. Despite losing his best friend Jeff (John de Lancie) in the crash, he describes it as the best thing that ever happened to him. In the moment death seemed imminent, Max felt freed from neuroticism and fear, and filled with compassion for the other passengers.
Now, in the crash’s aftermath, he seeks out situations to rekindle his fearlessness. He eats strawberries, which used to trigger anaphylactic shock. Eyes straight ahead, he walks through multiple lanes of San Francisco traffic. He dances on the ledge of a multistory building.
While Max remains super-empathic towards fellow survivors and Jeff’s widow, he doesn’t perceive the Kryptonite to his superpowers as his wife does. He’s robotic in his unfiltered truth telling. He’s burdened with nightmares and flashbacks, which his “invincibility” barely masks. He’s stopped working productively as an architect, obsessed instead with visually recreating the “divine light” he saw mid-trauma. His intense rapport with Carla and Byron has displaced attention to his own wife and son.
All of this carries the stamp of authenticity, both personally and in my work as a therapist for PTSD sufferers. One Vietnam vet I treated risked his life repeatedly in undercover law enforcement. Another veteran would push his motorcycle to perilous speeds on mountain curves. Later, he stepped off a ladder at a deadly height, to see if he could survive. Thankfully, he did, but like Max, these men would do anything to recreate and master a deadly adrenaline kick.
Like Max, many trauma survivors struggle to connect with the non-traumatized, despite their instant intimacy with the fellow traumatized. In Fearless’ first climactic scene, after Carla confesses her intense guilt to Max, he arranges to recreate the crash for her. Buckling her into the back seat of his Volvo after giving her a metal toolbox to hold, he crashes his car into a brick wall at top speed. Of course, her hands open and the toolbox flies through the windshield, demonstrating the impossibility of holding onto Bubble when the plane impacted in the cornfield.
This “exposure therapy” (don’t try it at home) frees Carla from her guilt, replacing it with a helplessness she can literally live with. This scene is so cathartic for me. Since my son Josh’s suicide, I’ve carried an overwhelming, irrational sense of responsibility that’s threatened to sink me. Lately, I’ve been able to replace this with an admission of my helplessness in the face of Josh’s lethal choice. Feeling helpless is no picnic, but it’s exponentially better than despondent guilt. I’m no longer toting a 50-pound toolbox in my thorax.
I also relate to Max’s connection/disconnection dichotomy with the traumatized and non-traumatized. I feel more empathic than ever towards the patients I treat. I care deeply for the people in my suicide survivor support group. But I’m so impatient with people who post on Facebook about their latest white person problem, or their alleged grief over the latest celebrity death. They live so obliviously! My sensors immediately detect those who have suffered and therefore live deeply. But I have no room in my heart for the shallow.
In Fearless’ final climactic scene—and final scene, period—Max returns home to his wife and son to strive for a new normalcy with them. Yet he can’t resist eating another strawberry, which this time throws him into anaphylaxis.
In his near-death state, we’re given the movie’s most vivid flashback to the crash. Weir shows his true mastery here, in creating a scene of immense emotional force. There’s very little in-scene noise or dialogue. The soundtrack instead is dominated by the plaintive strings of the first movement of Górecki’s Third Symphony. (This music has since been used to the point of banality in movies, but I believe Weir was first.)
Visually, the plane’s cabin is brightly lit, as Max slowly, serenely unbuckles his seatbelt, says goodbye to his best friend, and sits next to Byron, flying unaccompanied. After the crash, now on a soundstage—making clear we’re in Max’s version of reality—he escorts numerous survivors to safety.
Back in the present, Max is revived. Lying on the floor of his foyer, he cries and laughs as he shouts, “I’m alive!” The scene fades to black as Górecki’s music continues. Was Max happy? Sad?
To judge from Jeff Bridges’ performance, Max is feeling both things. (Grief and trauma often reveal that binaries don’t exist.) Now he needs to figure out how to integrate trauma’s gift and burden into ordinary life.
This resonates like an unbroken Liberty Bell. I’d trade everything to have my son back, and return to a life saddled with professional burnout and neurotic fears. But Josh is gone, and I’m newly fearless and more compassionate. Like Max, I’ve got to make this work.