As with all movies on this website, our goal is not to provide a complete synopsis of the film, but rather to document how the movie relates to the meaning of life. With that said, be forewarned, there are still spoilers ahead.
Fearless is a movie that was released in 1993 based on a novel by Rafael Yglesias. The film was directed by Peter Weir. Jeff Bridges starred as Max Klein, alongside Rosie Perez as Carla Rodrigo (a role for which she would be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress).
The movie opens with showing the wreckage of a plane crash and the survivors walking about—confused, crying, and in the case of Max, disappearing from the scene. But not before he saves a few lives, and reunites a baby and a mother. A near-death experience often brings about a different perspective on life for most people, and Max is no different. His best friend, his business partner, was decapitated during the crash. In some sense, the crash makes him realize the beauty of life, and yet, he seems willing to throw it all away—to taunt the grim reaper at every opportunity. He is deathly allergic to strawberries, yet, he is seen eating a bowl of them for breakfast after the crash. Cars must stop for people even if the pedestrian is not in the crosswalk, right? They do for Max. Dancing on the edge of a building, no problem. Nothing seems to entice death to take him.
Max believes in nothing. Carla is a devout Catholic who goes to church regularly. But, her faith is tested when she loses her son in the crash. Consequently, she becomes reserved and doesn't want to go out in public. She hides in the only place she can find solace, her bed—away from the light, apart from the world. A psychologist would eventually set up a meeting between Max and Carla, two people from two different worlds.
Max would confide in Carla that at the age of 13, he lost his father. A tragic event that for Max, appeared to be without meaning, without purpose. He would go on to say to her during a conservation on faith:
Well, people don’t so much believe in God as they choose not to believe in nothing. Life and death—they happen for no reason. We think that people are born because their mothers wanted them or because God needed another home-run hitter for the Giants. And we think that we die because we eat red meat or rob banks. That way, even though we can never be good enough or careful enough to live forever, at least we can try. But if it makes no sense, if life and death just happen, we have no reason to do anything.
Carla's response? There’s no reason to love. A riposte that confuses Max, who has, in some sense, stopped caring for his family. He shuts his wife (Laura) out, doesn't share with her what he is feeling. Laura pleads with him to go back to the way things use to be. But how can one live in a memory? Things have changed, have they not? What survived the crash? Was it Max or something else? To this, Max would state, I walked away from that crash with my life. That’s what survived—The taste and touch and the beauty of life. His wife responds that he must find a way to live with this that makes sense. But Max doesn't want to make sense, that much is apparent by his erratic behavior throughout the story.
During a Thanksgiving meal with the family, Max's son abruptly asks to be excused, and without waiting for an answer, he goes to play video games on his Sega Genesis with his friends. His father, Max, goes after him: Listen to me. I am throwing this out. When you die, you don’t get another life. Do you understand? Jonah (his son) replies defiantly, It is not real dying. It is only pretend. Here we see that although Max has shutout his family, he doesn't want the same fate for his son. Though he feels this, wants Jonah to spend time with the family, his words betray his emotions as he tells Laura that he doesn't want Jonah growing up not understanding death.
Max and Carla grow closer, while Max and Laura, Carla and her husband grow apart. They kiss. They buy presents for those they have lost. They dance. But during a car ride to nowhere, Carla breaks down. She cannot come to terms with losing her son. She believes she is the reason he died. She let go of him during the crash. Max makes matters worse by seesawing between accusing her of killing her son, to consoling her, as he is not sure which will work to get her to calm down. He stops the car, pulls a toolbox out of the trunk, puts it in the arms of Carla, tells her to hold tight, to pretend it is her son, then takes off exponentially speeding down the street. That is, at least until they smash into a brick wall. The toolbox goes flying through the windshield. Carla couldn't hang on, proving Max's point that she was not responsible for her son's death—a position he couldn't articulate. This seems to cure her. But not Max. Carla would eventually tell Max goodbye, that she was leaving her husband and moving on with life, a life that would not include Max.
Max is distraught. He saved lives on the plane, helped save Carla thereafter. But who will save him? He is left with the guilt of having survived his father, with having survived the plane crash, with believing that there is no meaning to life.
After Carla says goodbye for the final time, Max returns home. Bonds a bit with his son, finds a notebook Jonah made, which has newspaper clippings of Max Klein, the great savior (a term that was used to describe Max by many of the survivors). Yet, not even this seems to give him a reason to continue living. He sees the beauty of life, every aspect of it, from the silence in the desert, to the artistry of the soul. But who will save him? He looks towards his wife, with a look in his eyes that he knows death is coming as he bites into a strawberry. Max falls to the floor in a scene that seems never to end, leaving the audience in quite a state of suspense. If he dies, the story becomes the ultimate tale of nihilism. If he doesn't die, does it then become a case of redemption? A final act proving his faith in something? An example of someone finding a reason to live? It is clear, I believe, that by eating the strawberry he tries to commit suicide, and this time, death takes the bait. As the scene progresses, it appears it is over. But Laura thinks quickly, performs CPR, saves his life. So although Max chooses to end his life, the writer saves him, his wife saves him; and through the act of saving him, gives his life meaning. Thus making this one of the more unique and through-provoking responses to nihilism thus far reviewed on this site. Though the answer of love, of family, to the question of meaning is somewhat common, the way in which the movie portrays this is quite interesting.
Towards the end of the film, Laura would find a pile of artwork created by Max. Most of the individual pieces have one theme in common, darkness. In near-death experiences, people often report that they ascended towards the light. But the bulk of Max's artwork shows black or dark circles in the middle. One work which is not his own shows the traditional near-death experience reported by many people. It is titled The Ascent Into the Empyrean by Hieronymus Bosch and is shown below.
At the bottom of the picture in the movie is the following quote, The soul comes to the end of its long journey and naked and alone draws near to the divine. This is interesting, as Max's dark artwork may show what he saw during his near-death experience, or that he believes that there is no afterlife. That is, we descend into darkness, rather than ascending into the light. Or, from nothingness we are born, and unto nothingness we return. The bit in between, the light, that is life, that is all there is. But we often don't appreciate its splendor until we draw closer to the end.
Though, it should be noted, one piece he drew in the middle of the pile does have a white circle of light in the middle, which could invalidate this whole theory.
Overall - 8
Meaning of Life Relevance - 7
Uniqueness – 6
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