It’s useful to talk about narratives in terms of motion and travel - a story progresses from one point to another, action rises and falls, events gain momentum. When the narrative’s sense of motion and travel is married to actual motion and travel in the events of the film, in some ways it sort of makes the job of thinking about the movie easier. We can tie the actual journey to the metaphorical one.
In Fear, at least initially, explores the same set of ideas at both the narrative and thematic level. It’s a movie about travel, about a journey, and what happens when the journey goes awry. It’s a movie about getting lost, and unfortunately, that ends up being true at every level.
We open on a voiceover - a young man named Tom is calling a young woman named Lucy. They met a couple of weeks before, and maybe there was something there. There was at least enough promise to him that she gave him her number. He fumbles over inviting her to a music festival in rural Ireland, and she picks up the phone and accepts. So we pick up with them finishing up at a pub - Lucy in the restroom, Tom walking out - before they get back in the car. He’s booked a hotel for them to stay in for the night instead of driving right to the festival, and this puts Lucy off a little - he’s springing this on her, and they just met, and yeah, it’s a little forward. The whole point of the music festival is that it wouldn’t be just the two of them, they’d be among friends and now he wants a little alone time first. You get the sense that Tom thinks it’s romantic, and Lucy thinks it’s a little inappropriate. They haven’t known each other very long, so there’s a sense of awkwardness there. Each of these people is very new to the other, and you sense that they have very different expectations. A car from the hotel meets them in front of the pub to guide them to the hotel, and off they go.
Adding to the tension of these two new-to-each-other people is something that apparently happened back in the pub. Lucy got hit on by the barman, who called her a “fine, strong-looking young thing.” Which is right up there with “good breeding stock” as shitty complements go. Tom apparently got into some kind of altercation with some other people while Lucy was in the restroom, but it isn’t clear what happened. Neither of them really want to talk about it.
So they follow the guide car through the winding country roads, past trees and fields upon trees and fields. They come to a sign with additional directions to the hotel, and the guide car drives off down a side road. They turn left, they turn right, they come to dead ends. They backtrack, follow the signs again, end up where they started off. Tom and Lucy are lost, and the sun is going down.
The sun is going down, and they are being watched.
In fact, one of the film’s strengths is the degree to which it is able to rely on small moments. First Tom and Lucy are awkward, then they are getting lost, then night is falling, and then they’re faced with all of the shadows and twists and turns of the country roads, then they begin to see half-glimpsed figures, and so on. It takes its time to set things up, and it makes for a good slow burn. But then, in the third act, when some of those initial mysteries get resolved, it swaps that simmering tension for something sharper and more intense. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but in doing so it loses its footing. The majority of the film is highly ambiguous - it’s not clear where the threat lies or who is tormenting them. Any number of different things could happen, but as the possibilities are narrowed down, as the ambiguities resolve, the pacing ends up getting thrown off, and the final reveal doesn’t emerge all that organically from what has come before. So, when it should be at its tightest and tensest, when their situation should be revealed as something deliriously worse than it already is, it ends up losing steam, burning off all of that accumulated anticipation in a series of somewhat connected setpieces that deflate a lot of the mystery right when things should be hitting maximum what-the-fuckness. The story spins its wheels, as do the characters, who go from braving the relative safety of their car to explore their surroundings to potential victims yanked from location to location, as if the filmmakers are trying to wind everything up and pay off everything they’ve set up, whether it makes sense to do so or not. The film, quite simply, begins as a set of unknowns, and ends up lost. There’s a certain metanarrative elegance to that, but it makes for a disappointing film.
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