Sunday, October 26, 2014

Fear (1996)

Director: James Foley                                     Writer: Christopher Crowe
Film Score: Carter Burwell                              Cinematography: Thomas Kloss
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Reese Witherspoon, William Petersen and Amy Brenneman

Fear is something of a teen thriller, of a kind Hollywood doesn’t really make anymore. It’s a film that still attempts to appeal to adult audiences at the same time, unlike most of today’s films, which have a distinct dividing line in terms of audience. But even with that, it’s an odd film, slow moving and never really frightening in the way it could have been. The film was only Mark Wahlberg’s third film, and he’s so young that he doesn’t really bring anything unique to the production. He does acquit himself well, however, and certainly does nothing to let the film down. Reese Witherspoon had done a few more films than Wahlberg, though she was still at an early stage in her career as well. She doesn’t fare as well in the acting department, but then she’s never been very convincing on film. Her acting style seems very superficial and lacks any kind of deep emotional center to ground her performances. William Petersen’s appearance is interesting. He burst onto the scene in the mid-eighties in To Live and Die in L.A. and Manhunter, only to disappear into television and minor film work. This was something of a comeback that would only be solidified when he landed the leading role in TV’s C.S.I. a few years later. Amy Brenneman is the other lead and, while adequate, her weaknesses as an actress are evident.

The film begins with Reese Witherspoon as part of the ultimate blended family. Her father, William Petersen, is remarried to Amy Brenneman whose young son lives with them in Seattle. Petersen is an architect and they live in a gated community on the water. Witherspoon’s best friend is Alyssa Milano who is something of a daredevil and overtly sexual. When she skips class to drag Witherspoon to a popular bar in town, they see Mark Wahlberg and Witherspoon locks eyes with him. That night at a rave they meet again and alone afterward he says all the right things to her. In fact, he’s a little too perfect. When he meets her family he’s charming, helpful, respectful and while it definitely get’s Petersen’s radar up, it’s not enough to set off the alarm. When Wahlberg sets his clock back, Petersen misses a work deadline and winds up having to drive to Vancouver. He takes Brenneman with him, leaving Witherspoon alone with her younger brother, and when Witherspoon invites Wahlberg over she gives him her virginity. But when Wahlberrg sees her friend, Gary Rohmer, hugging her at school, he hops out of the car and beats him up, giving her a black eye in the process. Petersen is ready to shut the whole thing down, but when Witherspoon defies him and goes to Wahlberg's house she sees him having sex with Milano, and then she ends it herself. Or so she thinks.

The last twenty minutes of the film deals with the family’s harrowing encounter with a psychotic teen, jealous, enraged, and murderous. It’s not a great film by any stretch, but the only thing that keeps it from being bad is a fascinating screenplay. Primarily a TV writer, Christopher Crowe sort of defies the clichés and delivers a really watchable story. One of the things he does is lace his script with clues in very interesting ways. In an early scene with Wahlberg and Witherspoon he tells her that if something is too good to be true it probably is. This is juxtaposed with his meeting the family and behaving perfectly, to the point of strangeness. The one crack in the façade is when, in an unguarded moment, he commands Witherspoon to bring him a Coke. The look on Petersen’s face shows that he knows that behavior and can already see his little girl five years in the future, battered and bullied while Wahlberg commands her to get him a beer. Another moment happens near the end of the film when Wahlberg tells Witherspoon not to look at him with her eyes or hear him with her ears, but to feel who he really is. This is juxtaposed with his abusive behavior toward Alyssa Milano, demonstrating his true nature that he keeps hidden from Witherspoon.

While second-unit establishing shots were done in Seattle during sunset, the majority of the exteriors were filmed in Vancouver, Canada. It’s an oft used substitute that I’m sure for most viewers is perfectly acceptable, but for anyone who lives in Seattle, Vancouver is nothing like it. For one thing, the light is very different and even a few degrees of latitude to the north gives the sunlight a much lower slant. For another, the terrain is also very different. Vancouver is much more rocky and cliff-like on the coastline, where Seattle has a much more gentle approach to the water, especially around Mercer Island where the film is supposedly set. The biggest issue with the film as a whole, however, is the glacial pace of the thing. Because Crowe’s screenplay and Wahlberg’s character give so many clues to his sociopathy, the viewer knows something is wrong with him early on. Thus, spending so much time waiting for the family to catch up is not really suspenseful at all. The screenplay should have made him more normal and allowed the viewer to make the discovery along with the family, or made Wahlberg begin torturing them much earlier. Still, there was enough about Fear that was interesting that I didn’t hate it. It’s not recommended, but definitely worth checking out to make an individual assessment.

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