Traditionally, the post-New Year’s months are a dumping ground for half-baked horror boondoggles, and in the narrowest sense, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Fear X is a neurotic flake-out that could’ve only found distribution in January. But it’s a real moviemaker’s movie—from the very first glimpses of a desolate Wisconsin suburb out a curtained window, a sense of ominous blight locks your eyes open. A woman walks across the street toward an implacable tract house buried in old snow, and looks back; Refn’s compositions and pacing are masterfully anxious. The director is doubtlessly under-remembered for his 1996 Danish neo-noir Pusher, a modest but bullet-headed gutter scramble that remains one of its decade’s most accomplished debuts. Visiting the States with the help of co-scripter Hubert Selby Jr., Refn shoots poor-trash banality and middle-American mallness as if he’d been born in Oshkosh, but had only just now opened his eyes.
Haunted by the restless camera and Brian Eno’s ambient throb, Harry (John Turturro) is a traumatized mall guard whose wife has recently been shot. Living in a drab ranch furnished with tray tables and a wide-screen TV, Harry has reduced his life to investigating the minutiae of the unsolved murder, which includes the obsessive analysis of the mall’s security tapes. (Refn makes the most out of the chaotic video textures—often, the entire film fragments into a monsoon of unreadable pixels, suggesting the space to be bridged by a potential video-age remake of Blow-Up.) The amused feds ask Harry insinuating questions that seem to be either incendiary or purposeless, and the lifeless house outside his window keeps reappearing in his dreams. The rather nonsensically titled Fear X puts this disorienting vibe under a microscope; in the film’s quiet peaking sequence, Harry jimmies his way into the mystery house, discovering inexplicable emptiness, lights that turn on by themselves, and, suddenly, an unseeable figure knocking on the front door.
As carefully moody and ingenious with its mise-en-scène as the best Asian ghost thriller, Refn’s movie is resolutely American—its frozen badland neighborhoods are more convincing than any landscapes captured by American filmmakers last year. Eventually—maybe it’s when the camera disappears into the dark curls at the back of Turturro’s head—it becomes clear that Refn is nursing a Twin Peaks-Lost Highway strain of Yankee menace. It’s easy to imagine why a European, faced with the opportunity to go America, might naturally take up David Lynch’s lead. (It must be apparent from a distance that Lynch knows as much about his native national subconscious as Sam Fuller did—the two should be retro’d side by side.)
But when Harry traces a clue back to a Montana hotel with cherry red velvet walls and elevators that open onto utter blackness, the film unfortunately collapses into whole-hog Lynchmania, complete with nightmarish cutaways (faces behind veiny membranes, etc.) and a pie-serving roadside diner. It’s a shame: The refried imagery both dulls the senses and mitigates the substantial creepiness of the film’s first half. By the time we’re introduced to guilt-ridden cop James Remar and skittish wife Deborah Kara Unger (both, like Turturro, behaving as if they were recovering from a cliff fall), and the particularities of Harry’s mystery become clearer (but never completely clear), the damage has already been done.
Dangling the question of how many of these gathering clouds are in Harry’s head (increasingly, plot elements are later revealed to have happened differently from how Harry, and we, experienced them) is a knee-jerk flourish as well. Perhaps a radical re-editing of Fear X—like Lynch did on Mulholland Drive—could rescue the film’s workaday unease from the dread taboo of derivative weirdness. It’s half a movie, but a half that hums.