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Fear X (2003)

sombre, hallucinatory Fear X is a welcome addition to the most entertainingly intellectual of subgenres, the existential thriller,

Rating: 9/10

Running Time: 91 minutes

UK Certificate: 12A

Most mystery-thrillers pose a question of highly limited scope (e.g. ‘whodunnit?’), and carefully withhold or obscure the answer until the climax, where all is revealed in a (hopefully unexpected) dénouement. Occasionally, however, the genre can be used not only to pose much bigger, more philosophical questions about the nature of human identity, the treacheries of imagined reality, and the limits of cinema itself – but also to answer these questions at best ambiguously, and at worst irrationally, or even not at all. The sombre, hallucinatory ‘Fear X’ is a welcome addition to this most entertainingly intellectual of subgenres, the ‘existential’ thriller, whose dark enigmas challenge and mystify viewers without ever recoursing to the disappointment of some insultingly pat solution.

Harry Cain (John Turturro) lives a half-life of grief and insomnia. He spends his days shuffling through his job as a security guard in a shopping mall, unsettling the customers with his manic stare – while his nights are spent at home obsessively reviewing footage from the mall’s multiple security cameras. For he hopes to find a clue which will throw light on the recent death of his pregnant wife Claire, who fell victim to an unsolved, and apparently motiveless double-shooting in the mall’s car park. Following the wildest, flimsiest of leads, including his own dreams, and a photo of an unknown woman found in the vacant house over the road, Harry ends up staying in a hotel in a Montana town, where he seems to stumble upon a secretive conspiracy.

‘Fear X’ is the first English-language film by Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn (‘Pusher’, ‘Bleeder’), who co-wrote the spare, brooding script with Hubert Selby Jr. (‘Last Exit to Brooklyn’). The first half of the film recalls Antonioni’s ‘Blow Up’ and Coppola’s ‘The Conversation’, sharing their reflexive concern with a character who seeks deeper meaning in a disparate assemblage of recorded materials – even the name of Turturro’s obsessive, alienated protagonist recalls the name of Coppola’s similar antihero, Harry Caul. Once Harry has reached Montana, however, and is wandering the hotel corridors, unsure whether he is awake or dreaming, it is as though Turturro has gone right back to his title-rôle in the Coen brothers’ ‘Barton Fink’, while the bloodred-stained interiors are straight out of The Shining (on which cinematographer Larry J. Smith had worked previously). All these are lofty models to live up to, but Refn’s examination of the isolation, confusion and madness of grief certainly holds its own. The ever excellent Turturro offers a masterclass in low-key performance, and his minimalist portrayal of the extremes of human despair is aided considerably both by Brian Eno’s hauntingly sparse soundtrack, and by the film’s sets, especially Harry’s house and the hotel, where alienation walks the halls as an almost palpable presence.

The result is a film that satisfies on many levels. All at once a crime thriller, an engaging tragedy and a perplexing puzzle, ‘Fear X’ is as troubling as it is moving, and more than rich enough to repay multiple viewings – or, as Harry himself puts it: “Who knows what you might find if you keep looking?”

It's Got: A sombre mood, a bereaved protagonist, a secretive conspiracy and a whole lot of red.

It Needs: A less banal title.


A sombre, multi-layered mystery of bereavement and revenge, obscuring its solution in a blood-red mist.