Fear (1996)

Directed by James Foley

Screen Shot 2019-09-18 at 11.31.44 AM

David (Mark Wahlberg) becomes obsessed with Nicole (Reese Witherspoon) in Fear, a lurid thriller in the mold of Fatal Attraction, Cape Fear or Misery.  There seems to have been a trend of late 80s and 90s thrillers that dealt specifically with obsession, a motivation beyond greed or revenge but something more disturbed.

In Fear Nicole comes from a wealthy Seattle family, and David turns out to be from a broken home and a series of foster homes.  That brief description, however, is only a futile attempt to assess what makes him tick, and it seems a horribly ill-advised diagnosis for where such sociopaths come from.  David may have had a rough and tumble background, but within the film that could matter less.  He’s of a different ilk, a monster who only grows more unnecessarily monstrous with each scene.  The movie isn’t sure what makes him tick, but it’s utterly fascinated with his spectacle.

At first David seems perfect, of course.  He is everything Nicole could want, and he even charms her family, with a customized way into the hearts of each of them.  Then he sees her hugging a male friend of hers, he snaps and nearly kills the boy.  The conflict, then, comes from him being an abusive, possessive boyfriend.

But there’s something else here too because David then turns into an actual sociopath.  There is no inciting incident for this, he just is one, toying to some extent with Nicole but even more so with her father, Steve (William Petersen).  He goes out of his way to torment him in a way that suggests David isn’t a real person, just a strange manifestation of a father’s worst nightmare when it comes to his daughter.

It’s a really strange movie.

The way to look at it, I think, is that David is some disturbed fever dream for a middle-aged dad about who his daughter chooses to date.  Both David and Nicole are such one-dimensional characters, and it’s Steve who plays the role of character who suspects something is going on but whom no one believes.  He has to fight the battle against David on one level but as well the perception level on another.  There’s a villain out there, but people think he’s crazy for believing the villain is out there.  Then he turns out to be right.

If indeed this is more of a movie about a father’s fear, maybe written by someone coming from that point of view, well then it’s pretty hilarious and disturbing, especially with what comes before it, what the story imagines is the content of a teenaged girl’s wildest dreams.  Without getting too into the details there is an especially crazy scene on a roller coaster scored to a cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses.”

Once the movie surfaces David’s villainy, for all to see, it turns into something like Straw Dogs, with a gang of sociopaths descending on a rather well-fortified home.  The family fights back against the ever-menacing and absurd antagonists who throw logic out the window and just become the pure manifestations of evil.  At that point David is no longer David, just the devil or something like it.  It’s this heightening which both makes the movie kind of fantastic but also turns it into every other such thriller.  It doesn’t matter who these characters once were or who they pretended to be because their true colors have emerged.

And with all of these kinds of movies, the message just seems to be that evil hides amongst us, at first like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and then like The Exorcist.  They look like you or me, and they assimilate perfectly into society, but then they target you and swoop in, turning into your worst nightmare.

It’s a strange idea of evil, that it’s out there laying dormant in people whom the movies insist are nothing like you or me, they just look like us.  The suggestion is that they’ve always been evil, simply waiting to strike, and each movie seems to offer up a suggestion of why they are the way they are, but those explanations are often vapid and hollow, simply made up answers because it seems the movie is obligated to provide an explanation.

But those explanations don’t really exist, and for evil that really does lurk in the world there might not always be a neat and easy answer, no matter how hard we look.  A good movie example of this is Anton Cigurh in No Country For Old Men.  He’s just out there to be reckoned with, not anything to be understood or explained.

And characters like David, at least as presented, seem to be way beyond comprehension. They’re just chaos incarnate, having laid dormant for sometime for completely mysterious reasons.

So I wonder what was with this trend of movies, of people obsessed with desire or revenge.  Either way it boils down to control and psychological motivations rather than more easily understood drives.  Maybe this began in earnest with Silence of the Lambs or maybe it started before then, perhaps with ripped from the headlines stories like that of Ted Bundy.

I’m not sure if there’s any merit to this, but these are some notes I wrote down during the movie:

People spot something they want, and they quickly have to possess it completely.  Maybe it’s just the 90s homogenous yuppie culture where everything could be bought and sold, commodified.

It reminds me of the story on set of Fight Club, wherein Ed Norton and Brad Pitt hit golf balls at an old beat up VW bug.  Director David Fincher said that the VW bug was a car that represented a certain freedom in the 60s but which was then commodified and sold for a profit decades later, by many of the same people who believed in its freedom.  In the 60s its freeing, but in the 90s it has been transformed, possessed and stripped of its meaning.

That’s what happens here.  The free love gives way to the possessive obsession.

Back then it was freeing that you could go where you want, love who you want, and without those previous restrictions then it’s all a good thing, just because you can do it means it has value.  But here you have all the freedom in the world to go where you want, date who you want… so the conflict comes from within.  It’s not a system keeping two people apart but a disturbing darkness deep within, a comical darkness, that prevents it from happening.

Up Next: The Queen of Versailles (2012), Light of My Life (2019), Ad Astra (2019)

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