Peter Weir’s mostly forgotten drama about survivor’s guilt is an uncynical light in the darkness of mental illness.
Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. For Thanksgiving, we’re going off the beaten path this month and asking contributors to write about the movie they’re most thankful for experiencing. Read the rest of our coverage here.
(Please note, this essay addresses mental illness and suicide)
I was fascinated with the idea of death from a young age. Not in a creepy-cool Wednesday Addams sort of way, but in a lonely “this is a cry for help” way. My grandparents had a storage chest that I would curl up in with the lid closed, pretending it was a casket. I would hold myself underwater in a pool or the bathtub until I started feeling a little lightheaded. I was obsessed with horror movies. From age 12 to my early 20s I read whatever horrific true crime books I could get my hands on. I seemed to have a keen awareness that the veil was very thin, and I enjoyed poking at it. Well, “enjoy” isn’t really the right word, more like I felt compelled to.
Though Max Klein, the protagonist of Peter Weir’s Fearless, is physically alive, he’s spiritually and emotionally trapped in a void between life and death. Max (Jeff Bridges) has survived a plane crash, and despite being hailed as a hero for comforting his fellow passengers during the crash, is unable to process his own feelings. He withdraws from his loved ones, believing that he’s either invincible, or that he actually has died and just hasn’t moved on to the next world. It’s not until he faces another near-death experience that he comes back to this world, the real world, and realizes what a gift he’s been given of a second chance.
After more than a decade of battling depression, in 1998 I attempted suicide. When I think of that time, I think of a quote from Stephen King’s The Stand: “No one can tell what goes on in between the person you were and the person you become. No one can chart that blue and lonely section of hell. There are no maps of the change. You just come out the other side. Or you don’t.” I don’t remember much about who I was before I hurt myself. I remember things I did, places I went, but what kind of person I actually was is a little blurry. I look back on certain things I did and think “Well, that seemed very out of character for me,” but it was me. It’s almost a little disorienting sometimes.
Almost a year after my suicide attempt, my grandmother died. When I was young, she was the only source of real affection and security I had, and though I did have other lifelines to cling to when she passed (as much as I believed I didn’t deserve them), losing the first one, the original one, sent me reeling. It didn’t help that I had witnessed her “do not resuscitate” paperwork, which the hospital proceeded to ignore. For all the good it did her, I might as well have been dead and not around to sign the paperwork for her. What sort of massive accounting error made it so my grandmother, who didn’t have an unkind bone in her body, died and I was still lumbering around taking up space?
It was a long time of getting up and continuing to get through every day, where joyful moments were parceled out like candy.
In Fearless, Max’s friend and business partner dies in the plane crash he survived, and he too is sent reeling over the cold randomness of it. Jeff (John DeLancie) is a husband and a father, just like Max. There’s no reason to believe that he “deserved” to die, he just did. We’d rather drive ourselves crazier than we already are trying to figure out the “why” behind it, when there is no reason. It’s a cosmic dice roll.
I spent a lot of time in a sort of existential haze, like Max. I didn’t put my life at risk, though I wanted to, a lot. My failure to get a grip on my emotions and learn how to process them like a person was one of the contributing factors to my divorce, but even then that didn’t quite snap me out of it. I was just stuck, in a void, where the only clear message was you should have died.
But I didn’t, somehow. I would love to tell you that gratitude for my life returned in an instant, as it does for Max at the end of Fearless, but that wouldn’t be true. It didn’t take a second near-death experience. It was a long time of getting up and continuing to get through every day, where joyful moments were parceled out like candy. Some were monumental, like getting to see the sun set over the Grand Canyon. Others were small, inconsequential, like playing a card game at a table covered in Chinese takeout containers. They add up. You might think you don’t have a lot to be grateful for, a reason to keep going, but you do.
I would also love to tell you that I never return to that gray space, that place where I both think I’m dead, and wish that I was dead. It still happens. I still miss my grandmother, and wish that she was still here. But remembering her, and how she made me feel safe and loved, that’s a go-to for gratitude. Thinking of Fearless, and how Max almost literally stood in the doorway between life and death before returning to his family with love and appreciation for his existence, that’s another one.
I stood in that same doorway, and either turned around, or was pushed back. I don’t know why, and likely never will, because it’s not for me to know. The fact that I’m talking to you now is a bit of a miracle, of technology, of will, however you want to describe it. I’ll take it. I’ll take whatever reminders I can get that I belong here, and that it wasn’t a mistake.