Underseen or Undervalued – Fear X

This is a feature in which I re-evaluate films which I feel did not get the critical and commercial success they deserved.

Fear X was Nicolas Winding Refn’s third film. It was the follow-up to his tremendously successful debut Pusher and his second film Bleeder, which was a huge hit in his home country of Denmark. Fear X, his first work in the English language, was his chance to break into the mainstream. It starred John Turturro (Barton Fink & O Brother, Where Art Thou?) and its script was written by Herbert Selby Jr. of Requiem for a Dream fame, an art-house film which wound up becoming a commercial and critical success. Turturro plays Harry, a security guard whose wife, Kate, is killed in a seemingly random incident. Prompted by mysterious visions, he journeys to discover the true circumstances surrounding her murder. Fear X at the time was seen as a failure. Its loss resulted in Refn’s film company Jang Go Star going into bankruptcy. The debt was so large that it forced Refn to direct two sequels to Pusher in order to break even and it wasn’t until Bronson and Drive that the director became commercially and critically acclaimed on both sides of the pond. Why did Fear X fail at the box-office and only receive middling reviews? There are numerous reasons for this which I will touch upon as I write. However, the main point of this piece is to encourage people to seek out the film, as it is, in my opinion, a genuinely interesting and unsettling film.

FearX_RedFace.jpgFor me, the film can be read as the blueprint for Refn’s signature style. Like his later work, Bronson, Valhalla Rising, Drive and Only God Forgives, there is a strong contrast between colours. The film’s exterior shots are mostly roads and fields covered in Wintry snow. However, this is then juxtaposed with a recurring dream sequence of what appears to be man trapped under bright red latex trying to escape, symbolising Harry’s anger and resentment for not being able to protect his wife. When Harry is confronted with the truth towards the end of the film, there is a sequence in which his anger is set free and manifests itself in a bright red light accompanied to a series of disturbing images. In an interview in regards to Drive, Refn explained his colour palette ‘I’m colour-blind, I can’t see mid-colours. That’s why all my films are very contrasted, if it were anything else I couldn’t see it’.

Also, Fear X’s protagonist shares similarities with many of Refn’s later central characters such Tommy in Pusher II or the unnamed driver of Drive. All three are people who at first appear stagnant or unwilling to change their ways. Yet, due to uncontrollable circumstances (Driver’s love for Irene, the news Tommy has a child, Harry’s wife’s death) undergo key changes. Refn on the topic has stated: ‘I’ve always liked characters that because of the circumstances, have to transform themselves, and in the end, it’s inevitable that what they end up becoming is what they were meant to be’ – AV Club Interview, 2012.


While on the topic of the central character, it cannot be overstated how great Turturro’s performance is. He is absolutely heart-breaking. Harry, although smiling when talking with co-workers and family, always looks like he could break down at any second into tears. The actor, famed for playing brash and over the top characters, has never been more nuanced and more compelling.

One of the main reasons for critics and fans dissatisfaction with Fear X was the lack of resolution. Although, the audience leave the film with the knowledge of who killed Kate, the details are still very hazy and although Harry accepts that he will never truly know the full circumstances regarding the event, the audience is left with just as many questions as answers. However, Fear X can be equally read as a trojan horse of a film. Although we are, at first, attracted to the movie because we want to find out what happened to Harry’s wife, the truly intriguing aspect of the film is how it depicts a simple, kind man trying and failing to cope with such an overwhelming circumstance. Like what would probably happen in real life, Harry never truly finds the answers (there is a scene in which Harry is not present, in which the reason for Kate’s death is partially revealed).

FEAR X. Making of.jpg

Behind the scenes of Fear X

The filmmaker whose inspiration looms over the film is unquestionably David Lynch. The early scenes of the film in which Harry obsessively watches and re-watches security footage of the accident and the days surrounding it for clues, evoke the creeping paranoia of the surveillance scenes in Lost Highway, a film which also never reveals the reasons for the events that transpire.


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