Appropriate that Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2003 English-language debut, Fear X, has a variable in its title, because it seems pretty noncommittal about everything save for its atmosphere. But on account of the ominous drone-drenched score by Brian Eno and J. Peter Schwalm, the preponderance of unmarked VHS tapes filled with creepy surveillance footage, and a helplessly dazed performance by John Turturro as a mall cop trying to solve the murder of his pregnant wife by obsessive amateur sleuthing, this thing is genuinely unsettling. If you’re willing to forgive the self-consciously sparse dialogue and the film’s regular recourse to asking if it’s all just happening in the protagonist’s mind (the camera dollies right up to the back of Turturro’s head at regular intervals, and Refn punctuates this move each time with a fade-out), it’s even eminently rewatchable.
Conspicuous American flags, an early 2002 timestamp on the pored-over videos, and characters intent on justice suggest Refn and co-writer Hubert Selby Jr. aren’t so much interested in offering a coded resolution to their murdered-wife scenario as using its fractured pieces to probe post-9/11 national dread. Refn and Selby appear to be subtly recalibrating the Blow-Up/Conversation/Blow Out the-closer-you-look-the-less-you-really-know conceit for the media-saturated aughts (Turturro’s character, Harry Caine, views his surveillance tapes at home while snacking in his recliner), but even this sometimes seems like another blind alley. Fear X frustrates pretty routinely, but watching such tentative hokum presented with such serene confidence is a rare pleasure of its own.