Mind Control Double Feature #66: Jeff Bridges Feels You Up

That’s okay. Just let it all out. Being emotional isn’t a sign of weakness; on the contrary, it is a sign of depth and potential award nomination. This is particularly true if you happen to be Jeff Bridges.

Do you happen to be Jeff Bridges? If so: rock! Please come over for snacks.

Jeff_BridgesEven if you’re not Jeff Bridges, or maybe particularly even if you’re not Jeff Bridges (which certainly describes most of us) you can appreciate this actor’s skill at allowing the world around him to permeate his gruff exterior. While he’s been dallying in the Al Pacino school of self-parody lately, Bridges is a thespian with deep roots in old school emotional power.

The Jeffin’ Bridges has been kicking screen ass since even before 1971’s The Last Picture Show, in which, heck, everyone is just durn fantastic. He’s performed beside Clint Eastwood, King Kong, Iron Man, and the Last goddamned Unicorn. He’s worked with directing greats from John Houston to Hal Ashby to the Coen Brothers to John Carpenter. Yep. He’s quietly been charming the pants off me and the world for years. Now, kinda late in the game, he’s won an Academy Award and become a BIG STAR.

But maybe you haven’t seen some of his earlier, smaller, less well-known films? While he’s got a passel of credits from very watchable movies (StarmanTRONArlington Road), today’s Mind Control Double Feature focuses on the reluctantly emotional Jeff Bridges. The fellow who survives tragedy by armoring himself with a shell of numb resistance and who slowly — believably — kicks that weight to the curb.

Maybe you’d like Jeff Bridges to help you get in touch with your emotions? If so, invite him over in the guise of these two films, stock up on snacks, and let him feel you up.

Fearless (1993)

fearless movie poster bridges weirPeter Weir is one of those directors whose work you’ve loved, but whose name may not attract your immediate attention. While he’s been responsible for a few schmaltz-fests over the years (The Truman Show, Dead Poets Society), he’s also helmed exceptionally evocative films including The Picnic at Hanging Rock, Gallipoliand The Mosquito Coast.

His 1993 film Fearless — not to be confused with the Jet Li martial arts picture — slipped under the radar for many. This is a shame because it’s one of his best.

In it, Jeff Bridges can do no wrong. He can eat strawberries!

The story inspects Max Klein’s (Bridges) belief in his own invulnerability, and what this lack of fear means for his humanity. It is about grief and faith. It is about how our mortality makes us alive. Dramatic, right?

fearless plane crash

Stay calm

In Fearless, Max and his partner Jeff (John de Lancie) are off on a business trip when their plane runs into trouble.* And by “runs into trouble” I mean it crashes, killing almost everyone on board. Everyone, that is, but the people Max happens to touch.

As the disaster unfolds, Max looks into the sun and excises his fear. He stands and walks down the aisle indifferent to danger and sits beside an unaccompanied boy to await his fate. For Max does not fear death.

The plane crash Weir stages here is the one that serves as a template for all those that followed; did you think Lost did a bang-up job of making air disaster seem real? That crash and many others are poor imitations of original vision projected here. I haven’t seen Fearless in years, but the crash still sticks with me as does Jeff Bridges’ subtly incisive performance through it.

For when the tumult and smoke come to pass, it is Max who leads the few survivors into the sunlight and air. Then, he does not stop walking or start feeling.

fearless plane crash

He strides from the wreckage, ignoring rescue personnel, and drives away in a rental car. To the strains of the Gypsy Kings, Max sticks his head out of the car window, shaggy dog style, to feel life — but is he feeling alive? Max doesn’t call his family, or mourn the loss of Jeff, or do anything a normal person might. This is because he has become invulnerable through force of will. Not allowing any potential for harm to pass his barriers, he also blocks all possibility of tangible human connection. Although Max is deathly allergic to strawberries, now he eats them and has no reaction. He has gotten over it.

fearless jeff bridges

Walking on water

Max’s altered mental state — or post-traumatic stress, or gift of godly grace, what have you — reverberates through his wife (Isabella Rossellini), to his partner’s widow (Deirdre O’Connell), to the psychiatrist who is assigned to him (John Turturro). Eventually it reaches another crash survivor, Carla (Rosie Pérez), who thinks Max is an angel.

How else to explain his immortality and ascendance? But if Max protects or cares for Carla, he does so distantly, because he cannot be here and be fearless both.

From its opening, Fearless deliberately tears us from the world like a broken nail. Whether or not you consider the religious undertones whispering here (Max, for example, is only wounded only by a Christ-like cut to his side), you will spend the film studying the implications of estrangement. We talk of rising above the turmoil of our world, but doing so evicts us from all that makes life palatable. Being fearless is a tragedy.

fearless jeff bridges rosie perez

And this is a normal day for normal people who have survived.

As Max continues to leech himself from life, he must remind himself repeatedly that he does not quail before death. He does this by daring death to take him. If this causes trauma to those around him, well, that’s their problem. While that may sound overdone and melodramatic, it’s anything but. That’s because of Jeff Bridges’ talent and Peter Weir’s sure hand. Dark, distressing and still embracing.

Watching Bridges trap his character in a heavy cloak that won’t cover is a marvel. Max Klein is human. He does care. He does fear. See the expression and emotion leak from him until the dam can no longer hold.

And enjoy Tom Hulce as his ghoulish lawyer.

Fearless is not all sturm und drang, so don’t worry. There is nothing to fear here but no fear itself.

The Fisher King (1991)

fisher king poster gilliamIn case there’s any debate, the best Terry Gilliam / Jeff Bridges collaboration is clearly The Fisher King. While that one crazy dude in the corner eating his own hair might prefer Tideland, you can’t trust him or the week-dead bloated corpse of Jeff Bridges. You, and most everyone else, will far prefer watching a caustic, suicidal shock-jock version of Jeff Bridges as he reluctantly struggles to rejoin the world.

After brutal battles with the studios over Brazil and the expensive chaos of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, director Terry Gilliam wanted to film something manageable. Enter Richard LaGravenese’s script for The Fisher King and Jeff Bridges. Normally Gilliam wrote his own stuff, but this time he stayed out of the scripting and steered clear of the other members of Monty Python (Gilliam being the one American Python, responsible for all the animation and more).

The film begins with Bridges as Jack Lucas, a Howard Stern-style asshole talk radio host. He taunts his callers, particularly one sad sack who returns the favor by opening fire at a New York restaurant, massacring the patrons. Jack is silenced, too late.

the fisher king red knight

It is only a flesh wound

Three years later, Lucas is an alcoholic depressive set on suicide. His self-destruction is foiled, however, by a gang of youths who mistake him for an indigent and attack him. Lucas gets saved by Parry (Robin Williams), a delusional guy who battles imaginary knights in his quest for the holy grail. Parry wants Jack’s help on his quest, but Jack — still an asshole — is reluctant to let anyone in.

Then Jack finds out what made Parry go nuts. Some sad sack, abused by a talk radio host, walked into the restaurant Parry and his wife were dining in and opened fire. Parry watched his wife perish in front of him and went catatonic.

Karma’s a bitch, huh, Jack?

the fisher king jeff bridges robin williams

His back is much hairier.

And so: The Fisher King is the story of how Jack and Parry help each other to regain the world. Not in the ways they expect or intend, but in the only way that people can really be helped: through human connection.

The title of the film refers to the myth of the Fisher King, who, like Parry, sought the Grail and who, like Jack, could only be saved by a fool.

fisher king mercedes ruehl amanda plummer

Ruehl and Plummer

Terry Gilliam does his normally fantastic job of building a dystopian, tainted world and setting believable freaks loose in it. While Jeff Bridges plays a keen contrast to his Fearless character here, his skill is buoyed by a brilliant supporting cast including Mercedes Ruehl as Jack’s fed-up girlfriend, Amanda Plummer as the timid accountant Parry adores, John de Lancie (again!), Michael Jeter, Harry Shearer, Tom Waits, Kathy Najimy, and Robin Williams’ exuberant back hair.

Seriously. The man has a lot of hair on his back. It’s like a bear in a coat.

While you may think of Robin Williams as the culprit behind Patch Adams and Mrs. Doubtfire, he brings his A game to The Fisher King. He is an excellent foil for Bridges’ Jack and gives one of the best performances of his career — up there with his work in Aladdin and World’s Greatest Dad.

fisher king robin williams parry

Parry parries

There are moments of visual brilliance of the sort only Gilliam’s mind could conceive. There are hysterically dark scenes and howls of pain and deep gulps of truth. There is also the cracking open of closely held emotion, something Jeff Bridges excels at.

It is a myth made modern, because the elements of myth still exist. We are still lost and terrified and awed, or we should be. Luckily, Jeff Bridges is here to show us how to express ourselves emotionally.

Don’t be shy. Let the man get intimate with you. He knows what he’s doing.

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* You may recognize John de Lancie as Donald Margolis from Breaking Bad, in which he also had trouble with planes.

2 responses on “Mind Control Double Feature #66: Jeff Bridges Feels You Up

  1. The Fisher King is my favorite movie, and has been for about two decades. And I don’t say that lightly. (Well, there was a brief period when I thought maybe it should at least be tied with La Strada and Ordinary People.)

Yeah, well, you know, that's just, like, your opinion, man.