An Appreciation of Nicolas Winding Refn’s FEAR X

The 2003 film was actually the NEON DEMON director’s first horror feature.

Danish enfant terrible Nicolas Winding Refn has explored many different worlds of violence over the course of his filmography, and The Neon Demon came billed as his first outright horror movie when it hit Cannes and then theaters earlier this year. While it gets into seriously gruesome territory in the home stretch, Demon (out on Blu-ray and DVD now) isn’t really the director’s initial venture into fearsome territory. More psychologically inclined, yet still an undeniable chiller, Fear X repped Refn’s true debut in the fright field when it premiered at 2003’s Sundance Film Festival.

Refn had desired to make a fright feature from the beginning of his career, and with the success of his debut crime thriller Pusher and subsequent dark relationship drama Bleeder, he found the freedom to fulfill that ambition. And he got to do it in English, an advantage when selling the film overseas, with recognizable faces including John Turturro, James Remar and Deborah Kara Unger. Coincidentally, when it arrived in U.S. theaters in January 2005, it did so on the same day as Uwe Boll’s Alone in the Dark and a week after Jean-François Richet’s Assault on Precinct 13—two more thrillers that found European directors attempting to crack the international market with English-language fare. Unlike those two, however, Refn didn’t adopt the typical, fast-paced Hollywood approach; instead, Fear X maintains a deliberate, brooding pace that’s more, well…European. It wasn’t the quickest way to Hollywood, but it has a lot more integrity and is infinitely more satisfying to watch.

To co-write the script, Refn sought out Requiem for a Dream and Last Exit to Brooklyn author Hubert Selby Jr., and Fear X stands as the late, celebrated writer’s only original and last produced English-language screenplay. Despite its title, the focal emotion of Refn and Selby’s scenario is not terror but obsession. Turturro plays Harry Caine, a security guard at a Wisconsin shopping mall who has never recovered from the shooting death of his wife Claire in the building’s parking garage. The police have no leads, and in between visions in which Claire (Jacqueline Ramel) continues to appear to him, tantalizingly out of reach, Harry compulsively studies mall security videotapes, hoping to catch a glimpse of the murderous deed and the person who perpetrated it. Refn, feeding us details of the incident only gradually, gets us wrapped up in the mystery too—we want to tease out a definitive image from those grainy tapes as much as Harry.

As Harry’s mental state unravels and he eventually stumbles upon a random, discarded photograph that he believes is a key piece of evidence, we’re also introduced to Lt. Peter Northrup (Remar), a Montana cop who has just received an award for his police work. He’s clearly troubled by something too, but what is it? And what does it have to do with Harry’s plight? Refn drops hints and revelations slowly—and then does something unexpected and unconventional. Like Alfred Hitchcock with Vertigo, he reveals the solution to the central mystery well before the story’s climax, intending for this information to deepen our understanding of the two protagonists in what turns out to be an unnerving character study. Both Harry and Peter are haunted by an act of violence, and the suspense ultimately derives not from waiting to find out the details, but in observing how both men react—solely and to each other—once they have that knowledge.

It’s a risky gambit, and neither the story (and its backstory) nor the emotions are especially complex; as sometimes occurs in Refn’s cinema, Fear X doesn’t really amount to much on a narrative level. But the director’s skill at creating a stark, eerie mood and plumbing the recesses of his characters’ psyches is strong enough to fixate one’s attention throughout. There’s quite a bit here that recalls David Lynch, and—when Turturro checks into a hotel whose decorator was clearly enamored of deep red—the Coen brothers’ Barton Fink, but Refn isn’t merely creating a pastiche of previous semi-surrealists here. He doles out abstract images sparingly while carefully tying the tone to Harry’s tormented mental state, and Turturro responds with another of his fully inhabited performances. He’s convincingly haunted but never so withdrawn that he pushes the audience away, and even as you sympathize with Harry, you can easily believe he’s not all right upstairs. Indeed, Refn suggests as the film goes on that his point of view can’t be trusted, and that not everything he—and we—learn as his odyssey continues may actually be the truth.

Refn shot Fear X in Canada and Copenhagen, and yet its vision of a barren rural America is consistently convincing and evocative. Major credit for this goes to cinematographer Larry J. Smith, who had worked on three Stanley Kubrick features and here drains the vibrancy from the movie’s colors without going for the monochromatic mise-en-scene seen in too many modern thrillers. The score by Brian Eno and J. Peter Schwalm adds an extra undercurrent of dread to a film that may not be an outright horror story on the surface, but creates a sense of unease by enveloping us in its protagonist’s paranoid state of mind. Fear X eventually comes to an inconclusive ending—but if looked at from Harry’s point of view, that may be the scariest thing about it.

Unfortunately, that didn’t make Fear X an easy sell, despite the names in the cast. Although it went on to a number of other prestigious festivals, winning Best Screenplay at 2004’s Fantasporto fest, profitable sales were not forthcoming. The film wound up being acquired for Stateside distribution by the small Silver Nitrate Releasing, which only placed it in a handful of theaters. In fact, on a financial level, Fear X was an outright disaster that sent Refn’s Jang Go Star company into bankruptcy. Facing over a million dollars in debt, the director retreated to a safe commercial bet: a pair of sequels to Pusher. That duo set his career back on course, and his profile—and the heat of the critical debate attending his work—has been rising ever since. Those who want to add Fear X to the discussion today will have to either rent Lions Gate’s now-out-of-print DVD from Netflix or buy it used on-line, but it’s worth tracking down as a noteworthy early work of a burgeoning auteur.