Thoughts inspired by the film - Fear X – Written and Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
Movies by Nicolas Winding Refn
Should Money drive the subject matter?
Fear X by Nicolas Winding Refn, starring John Turturro, is one of those movies that was a critical success and a commercial flop.
The people who ultimately fund movies are more often concerned with their financial return than the movie’s artistic contribution (and I can’t blame them, as you can’t stay in business if you keep losing money.) As Fear X resulted in a large loss of money, Nicolas Winding Refn was forced to return to his ultra violent debut success, Pusher, and unwillingly turn it into a trilogy.
Although I would typically prefer to take the side of a filmmaker over a producer as a matter of principal, especially when I really liked the movie in question - Fear X - you can’t take a large chunk of someone else’s money (in this case – the bank’s) and make a movie that you know will appeal to a very small audience. If you want to make a movie that will appeal to a small audience – then use a small amount of money.
Darren Aronofsky did the same thing with his movie, The Fountain. He made an excellent dark and abstract movie that would appeal to a very small audience – for sixty million dollars. This was after another company was going to make it for a much larger amount and then backed out during preproduction - after camp was already set up and many of the props and locations were built. They re-evaluated the situation and decided that it didn’t make financial sense. As a result of the sixty million dollar box office flop, Darren Aronofsky had trouble raising the relatively small budget for his Oscar winning film, The Wrestler, starring Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei.
In both cases, with Fear X and The Fountain, as the audience member, I’m glad they both made their movies. At the same Refn and Aronofsky put themselves in very vulnerable situations where they might not have had the situation to ever make a movie again. Refn had no intentions of ever re-visiting Pusher, but could only get funding for future movies through sequels.
With Refn knowing that he would have to compromise somewhere, but also being the type not to compromise his artistic integrity, we did not end up with the average sequels that diminish in quality. Instead, Refn chose minor characters from the original movie, Pusher, and explored them, making three movies that were very loosely linked and work equally well independently. He turned a bad situation, artistically, financially, and emotionally, into two new brilliant (although very dark) movies. But he could have just as easily been in a situation where he had to start turning in applications at fast food restaurants.
There is a great documentary called Gambler, by Phie Ambo, which chronicles the personal and financial stress (trauma might be more appropriate) caused by his production company going bankrupt in the aftermath of Fear X, and his inability to get funding for a new movie. The documentary continues to follow him as he has no choice but to accept the idea of shooting Pusher II and III with low budgets and very demanding schedules (not even taking into consideration that there were no scripts.) This isn’t to say that Pusher II and III were handed to him. There was a lot of hard work that went into getting projects that he didn’t even want.
So what was the problem with Fear X?
He is from Denmark, and although he is well known there, and Pusher has had some international success, it did not have the type of success that would carry a high dollar dark abstract art film that meditates mostly on a man’s internal processing of his wife’s murder. It is a movie that keeps you uncomfortably tense and awkward for the duration and than purposely leaves you unsatisfied due to its honesty.
In one hand he was very passionate and honest about what he was doing, but on the other hand he was not very wise about his choice for a break-out movie in the U.S. market. Especially considering it was the flagship of his company.
We of course need people who are willing to take risks, but he clearly has an interest in a wide array of subject matter. Why not choose something that would do for him in the U.S. that Pusher did for him in Denmark? Why not build up equity in the company so that it could sustain that type of financial blow? When you are a Martin Scorsese you can weather a personal movie like Kundun, even be praised for it, but when no one has ever heard of you, why take the risk? How many filmmakers are there that we never heard of because they chose that path (making films like Fear X,) and did not recover – not having the opportunity grasp for a Pusher II and III?
That’s the thing about being stubborn. You know these questions, and you do what you want anyway. You do what you are driven to do. It’s not a matter of popular logic. If he was the type to take the safe route, he never would have made Pusher to begin with. If Pusher II and III didn’t come along, he’d either be driven to keep making movies anyway – on super 8 or a VHS camcorder if need be - or he’d quit and get a solid job with benefits.
What is unfortunate for these stubborn people is that we are more often the benefactor’s then they are. Van Gogh, for example, never sold any of his work during his lifetime. He was known to pass out from hunger when having to choose between buying painting supplies or food. When he did have the opportunity to go out, he would drink absinthe, the cheap drink that is similar to drinking paint thinner. The drink, in combination with the hours spent under the glaring hot sun, lead to him to the incident where he cut off his ear, and soon after climbed a tree and shot himself in the stomach. When he died we was known to very few outside his fellow artists.
Fortunately for Refn, he recovered strongly with the sequels exceeding expectations.
If you are interested in seeing Fear X, it is a film about Harry, played by John Turturro, who is obsessed with finding out why his wife was shot in a shopping mall. The movie is essentially about him internalizing and obsessing over this tragedy, which happened prior to the start of the movie. There are long moments of Harry sitting alone, watching security tapes, thinking, seeing red, analyzing photos… seeing red… hallucinating, seeing red… slowly losing his mind. There is not a lot of surface level story to ground it, but there is a lot of soft brooding tension, and awkward silence. Where more traditional stories might use dialogue to resolve moments and to move a story forward, Refn uses dialogue to mislead you (and Harry.) Where some movies use tension to build up to some release; laughter, violence, sex… in Fear X it leads to more un-resolving tension.
The music reflects the movie. The music is often several discord notes held through the duration of the scenes, occasionally adding a higher note to increase what is seemingly unbearable tension. The movie becomes a contest of “how long can you sit and listen to the fingernails drag across the chalkboard.”
The criticism (and probably the cause of its financial failure) is that despite doing what it does very well, it is only attempting to do one thing, brood. As a result, it appeals to a very small audience, and even for those who really liked the film, it is not the type of movie that you need to see multiple times.
If you don’t like dark movies (there are far darker movies than this, his other ones, for example) and if you are easily distracted, this movie is probably not for you. You will have no problem maintaining focus during the Pusher trilogy, however.
- Here is a review of another film by Nicolas Winding Refn: Bronson - starring Tom Hardy