Survivors of catastrophes often have a dramatically different view of life afterward. This is the case for Max Klein (Jeff Bridges), who walks away from a horrendous plane crash in a corn field in rural California in the film Fearless (1993), directed by Peter Weir. As a survivor, Max straddles a line between life and death, never sure which side he is on. After leaving the crash site, Max checks himself into a motel and drives to see a friend the next day. He never bothers to call his family.
While the opening of Fearless hooks the viewer instantly, the rest of the film relies on the performances of its two main characters, played by Jeff Bridges and Rosie Perez. The remainder of the supporting cast, which includes Isabella Rosselini, John Turterro, and Bennicio Del Toro, provide one-dimensional filler for the lead actors. Regardless of its shortcomings, Fearless leaves an impression that is difficult to shake off. Don’t see this film prior to flying.
Max, after being located by investigators and encouraged to return home to his wife and kid, finds that his normal life holds no interest for him. He also avoids the attention heaped upon him by the media for being a hero who saved many people during the crash. Carla (Rosie Perez), on the other hand, lost her baby boy during the crash and has not been able to move on since. A therapist, played too over-the-top by John Tuturro, brings Carla and Max together in an attempt to heal each other. Carla holds all her meaning in her dead child, while Max realizes there never was meaning to begin with.
Max accompanies Carla to her church where she lights a candle and prays. Max, surveying the scenery, laughs out loud at the setting, which does not sit well with Carla. He then delivers the best line of the film: “People don’t believe in god so much as they choose not to believe in nothing.” Max’s nihilism-by-accident is further tested by a lawyer who is trying to win a huge settlement for Max and the family of Max’s dead architect partner. Max is unwilling to lie about what he saw during the crash. He finds their reasons for seeking financial gain trivial compared to the new view of life he is experiencing.
Max and Carla continue to grow closer to each other, much to the dismay of their respective spouses. But just as Max and Carla’s relationship seems to be bringing them both back to normal, Carla breaks down again, blaming herself for the loss of her baby. Max goes to an extreme to prove to Carla that the death of her child wasn’t her fault. The build-up to this climatic scene suffers from a bad choice of music, unfortunately, which weakens the scene’s impact.
After the dusts settles and the last twang of guitar fades, Carla is healed but Max remains scarred, emotionally speaking. By saving Carla, he loses her relationship, forcing him to go back to his normal life. He realizes he can no longer maintain his position outside his own life. Fortunately, the filmmakers set up a gimmick that will get Max where he wants to go. They beat it into the ground worse than the landing gear of the plane that crashed. And while anyone can see the gimmick coming from a mile away, the strength of the film’s ending comes from the flashbacks that Max experiences because of the gimmick.
Experiencing the actual crash provides the first-person perspective that allows the viewer a glimpse into Max’s loss of meaning. It’s a strong demonstration of how fragile our lives are. When Max realized the plane was going to crash, he whispered to himself: “This is it. This is the moment of your death.” That scene reminded me of a quote from a rabbi who discovered he had cancer: “What have I left undone? That marching song of purpose is quickly undermined by the whisper of nihilism: so what if you’ve left something undone?” Once Max realized his situation and accepted it, he was able to take action and help calm the other passengers, many of whom he saved.
Max’s nihilism may not represent a permanent fixture in his life but was something he had to experience in order to regain his perspective. When faced with death, the meaning he had assigned to life suddenly seemed trivial. The only way to move forward was to take active control of his nihilism. Once the meaning dissolved away, he decided what he wanted to do.