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‘Fearless’ (1993) and the Saving Carla Moment

After a man survives a horrific plane crash, he finds he is a changed man, disconnected from his old life, overwhelmed with a powerful sense of invulnerability as he searches for meaning in his fate, having profound effect on his family and a fellow passenger who can’t accept her own survival.

Directed by Peter WeirFearless stars Jeff Bridges as architect Max Klein, traveling from San Fransisco to Houston when the plane he’s aboard suffers hydraulic failure and begins to rapidly descend. When it’s clear the plane will crash, the passengers panic but Max is surprisingly calm, suddenly accepting of his expected death. He leaves his business partner’s side and sits next to a boy who is traveling alone and assures the child that everything will be okay. The impact destroys the plane but Max and a few others manages to make it out alive, including the boy. The event wholly transforms Max, instilling in him a tranquility he’s never experienced and an appreciation for life that heightens every waking moment, seemingly giving him powers over the frailties of his former life. He begins to question the very fabric of existence, caught in a limbo between the real and unreal. As the world continues to revolve around him normally, he moves as if possessed by a spirit, aching to test his feelings of invincibility. It puts great strain on his family, with his wife, played by Isabella Rossellini, desperate to understand. An airline appointed psychiatrist (John Turturro) works with survivors and encourages Max to meet with Carla Rodrigo (Rosie Perez), a young woman who walked away from the crash though her baby, traveling with her, was lost. She has succumbed to debilitating depression and survivor guilt and won’t communicate with anyone, shutting herself in her room. The relationship that Max builds with Carla grows in small steps, but their connection is powerful, each traveling in different directions from the accident but about to collide as they face the truth about what they have become. This forgotten gem is an emotionally draining experience with tremendously affecting performances from the two leads. Bridges is especially good as a man tortured by the challenges of living through something he probably shouldn’t have, trying to contend with a world that seems immeasurably out of step with his own existence while Perez gives the performance of her career as a mother crushed by a perceived failure that essentially cripples her. 

That Moment In:

Carla is a deeply religious woman who can’t understand why her god took her child but left her alive. The numbness she feels leaves her hallow to life and she lashes out to anyone she can blame. Max is the only one she clings to, a worthy companion in this odd new existence. They spend a great deal of time together, slipping further away from the regular world, eventually feeling like ghosts, unseen by the unfortunate living. All the while, Carla longs for her son, and one day, she breaks down in the car with Max, convinced that she is the reason her baby died, claiming that as the plane hit the ground, she let go of him and he fell away. She is to blame. Max tries to console her, telling her that she is not at fault, but Carla, regresses to wails of agony and guilt, rocking in the seat in anguish. He uses heavy words that try to tell her she is guiltless, but she hears them as confirmation that she is her baby’s killer, her explosive sadness pushing him out of the car like a tidal wave. Overwhelmed by the reaction, he paces on the backstreet, wracked with shame for what he’s done. In desperation, he spots something in the distance and a choice is made. He gently guides Carla to the backseat and straps her in carefully. From the trunk, he takes a toolbox and places it in Carla’s arms, telling her her it is her baby, convincing her that it is as she continues to weep and pray for her soul. He tells her that this is her chance to hold tight, to save him from the crash and so she clings to the red box as if it were so. He then climbs behind the wheel and drives down an alley, accelerating quickly, holding the wheel true, straight into a reinforced concrete wall where the toolbox flies from her hands and crashes through the windshield as the car crumples under the ferocious impact.

Why it Matters:

Max’s journey is about a cheated death, at least in his eyes, one perhaps made by shifting seats as the plane went down. His survival has left him lingering in-between life and death, walking the thin line with terrible uncertainty. His life feels unwarranted, his escape from death not earned. Carla on the other hand longs for death and wants nothing more than to trade places with her son, gripped by savage, unforgiving fingers of doubt and remorse. This moment is about solving both these dilemmas. The important thing is how Max takes responsibility for Carla’s sudden breakdown, believing his actions have convinced her that she is at fault, even though she herself had suggested it. He paces in search of a way to help her, make her stop, and his solution is extreme, meant to satisfy her faith but born of science. He’s told her it would be impossible to hold a child while crashing at hundred of miles per hour, though these facts are lost in her sobbing condition. He decides a sort of re-enactment will prove his theory as words no longer reach her. This moment, as he stares at the wall (unseen by the audience) is crucial. It is far more than a choice to save his friend’s life, but one where he decides to end his, something he has been contemplating since the accident, eerily convinced that he can’t die. While he’s stood on precarious roof tops and recklessly crossed busy thoroughfares in attempts to come to grips with his condition, this choice for sacrifice suddenly strips away the fearlessness he’s been carrying since the accident. But the fear is essential in his mind, to both convince Carla she is wrong, thereby freeing her of that guilt, and be rid of the turmoil he himself is endlessly circling within. As he barrels toward the wall, certain this is his real moment of death, he pleads with Carla to pray for them, his tone not one of belief, but almost of contempt for the whole of it. All this happens while U2’s Where the Streets Have No Name rises in the background, the crescendoing strumming riff adding great urgency to the moment while the tune’s title is easy connect with the backstreet setting. Note too the graffiti on the concrete wall where Max makes impact, a large red heart wrapped in barbed wire with a single, wide open eye staring at Max as he approaches and collides. Great love, symbolically representing his family, held captive by the tortures of his break from reality, are always watching over him, even as he crashes into it. It’s a tragically beautiful moment in a film that challenges its audience throughout.



Peter Weir


Rafael Yglesias (novel), Rafael Yglesias (screenplay)


Jeff Bridges, Isabella Rossellini, Rosie Perez

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  1. TheMarckoguy February 23, 2016