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FEAR X(director/writer: Nicolas Winding Refn; screenwriter: Hubert Selby Jr.; cinematographer: Larry Smith; editor: Anne Osterud; music: Brian Eno/J. Peter Schwalm; cast: John Turturro (Harry Caine), Deborah Kara Unger (Kate), James Remar (Lt. Peter Northrup), Stephen McIntyre (Phil), William Allen Young (Agent Lawrence), Gene Davis (Ed), Megan Basaraba (Amy), Mark Houghton (Diner Cop), Jacqueline Ramel (Claire); Runtime: 91; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producer: Henrik Danstrup; Verve Pictures; 2003-Denmark/UK/Canada/USA)
“Slick thriller.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The American filmmaking debut of the 32-year-old Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn (“Pusher”/”Bleeder”) is a mixed blessing, as it’s a well-crafted slick thriller that stimulates interest but fizzles though derivative of the better intellectual enigmatic films like Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966) and Coppola’s The Conversation (1974)–that had its lead character with the almost similar name of Harry Caul. It just leaves too much off the screen to cohere as a whole film. It’s written by the late Hubert Selby Jr. (“Last Exit to Brooklyn”) and Mr. Refn. Though the existential thriller promises much, it eventually implodes as it bogs down with an unsatisfying opaque ending that fits to a tee what is meant by being arthouse pretentious.

Wisconsin shopping-mall security guard Harry Caine (John Turturro) is still grieving the recent motiveless, random murder of his pregnant wife Claire in his mall’s underground parking lot, that also resulted in the murder of a policeman–possibly a contract killing. The obsessed, mild-mannered, guilt-ridden Harry investigates the crime on his own when not satisfied with the apathetic police investigation into the unsolved double-murder, and spends his free time breaking down closed-circuit security film at the mall and filling his living room wall with photos of suspects and news clippings. Harry suspects that an empty house across the street from his home, that was temporarily rented, was used for surveillance and when he breaks in he only finds a snapshot of a nameless blonde woman (Deborah Kara Unger) posing with her child by a restaurant; that diner clue leads him to a small rural Montana town in the dead of winter (with Canada filling in for Montana). Harry stays at a $50 a night hotel, with a gaudy color scheme of blood-red walls for corridors, that offers favors for its male guests. In the morning he shows the snapshot at the local diner to an inquisitive policeman (Mark Houghton) and is soon visited by another tormented decorated policeman named Peter Northrup (James Remar), who claims to know the woman in the snapshot (who is actually his apprehensive wife) and wants to talk with Harry before taking him to see her. A traumatized Harry makes it clear he’s not after revenge, but only wants to know “Why?” his wife was killed.

Harry’s obsession with wanting to know answers will lead to loss of job, his relationships, his overwhelming death-wish and his inability to distinguish between the real and dream world, as he seems to be a possessed man unafraid of death and not unduly perturbed by the desolate environment or by confronting his wife’s killer. Unfortunately the confrontation between the guilt-ridden killer and the innocent bystander’s loving husband leaves us short-changed. Caine’s search for answers to a criminal puzzle is only meant to be a tease that raises more questions than it answers.

The overblown score by Brian Eno, the Lynchian evocation of a grief-stricken soul and the intense Barton Fink performance by Turturro are all catchy but non-binding, in a psychological thriller that still had enough chills to make it better than many such neo-noir films.

REVIEWED ON 12/31/2008 GRADE: B-

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”