Wednesday, April 4, 2012

"Fear" (1996)

Starring Mark Wahlberg, Reese Witherspoon and William Petersen
Written by Christopher Crowe
Directed by James Foley
Rated R - Violence, language, sex, drug use
Running Time: 96 Minutes

Good-girl Nicole Walker (Reese Witherspoon) spends much of her time dealing with her somewhat overbearing father Steven (William Petersen) and her step-mother Laura (Amy Brenneman) and hanging out with her best friends Gary (Todd Caldecott) and Margo (Alyssa Milano).  One night, Margo convinces her to go to a rave, where she meets David (Mark Wahlberg) a seemingly nice older guy who helps her out when the rave gets out of hand.

Soon enough, Nicole and David are dating.  Steven is wary of David, as fathers often can be, but everyone tells him to loosen up.  As their relationship deepens, David begins to push Nicole subtly, manipulating her.  Blind to his manipulations as negative, she initially goes along with it since it's all so exciting and new to her, and David seems so nice.

But David soon begins to show a darker side.  He assaults Gary when he sees Gary and Nicole share a hug outside of school, and gives Nicole a black eye.  Nicole covers it up with her parents, but decides not to see David again until he shows up at Margo's house and begs her forgiveness and for another chance, which she grants.  But by now, Steven has decided that David is not a good person, and will do whatever it takes to keep David from seeing her.

The remarkable thing about "Fear" is really its cast.  The combination of Wahlberg, Witherspoon and Petersen works extremely well, despite the fact that the script seems so tame.

Firstly, Mark Wahlberg does a solid job creating a psychopath, but it's the script that holds him back.  There are only a handful of instances where he gets to let loose with the crazy, so that when it does happen, it almost seems out of place.  There's a scene where he carves 'Nicole 4 eva' into his chest but it seems almost randomly placed.  In another scene, he punches himself in the chest to give himself bruises and blame it on Steven, which is far more effective.

The script also doesn't quite allow Witherspoon's character to come into her own, either.  Though her behavior throughout the film could be construed as wishy-washy, I have no doubt that it's at least somewhat accurate to how people in such emotionally abusive and controlling relationships react, even though she gets to stab David in the back at the film's climax.  But because she isn't the one who rises up to take him out, she ultimately comes across like a rather weak character who gets saved by her father and her little brother.  I don't have much reason to root for her, since when things finally come to a head, she seems just as helpless as she was clueless about David's manipulation of her earlier in the film.  The movie seems to scream for her to be the one to toss his ass out a window, but instead he just knocks her over and gets into a fight with her father, which is far less satisfying.

Still, the performances are fine enough to almost overcome the fact that the script just isn't that strong.  The film seems to meander about for a good long while before throwing in a moment or two of shocking violence, and then go back to feeling tame and almost boring until something else absurd comes along.  I had to laugh out loud when one of David's friends pushes the decapitated head of the family dog through the pet entrance of their home because it's just so ridiculous.

The climax of the film settles into a sort of siege mentality with David and his thug friends trying to break into the Walkers' home, and there are some thrilling moments and even a couple of clever kills.  But none of this helps break "Fear" out of the mold of being a middle-of-the-road thriller.  It's interesting to look back upon after seeing where the careers of its major stars went - Wahlberg and Witherspoon to A-list film stardom, Petersen to 'CSI' legend and Milano to... 'Charmed'...  But taken on its own, "Fear" isn't much to write home about.