Fear (1996)

2 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Fear.” What a generic title if I ever heard one. You could give that title to any thriller and it’d make about as much sense. It’s a thriller, it’s a horror film, it acts upon fear. There has to be a better title than…”Fear.”

Now that I’ve got my issues with the title out of the way, I’ll state right away that “Fear” is a well-made thriller that fits into the class of deceptive-individual movies. Those are movies in which a character is introduced as a nice person for the other character to befriend and interact with, and then by the end of the movie, that person will have tried to kill the other person after revealing his or her true nature. There’s a whole list of them—“Firstborn,” “Fatal Attraction,” “Single White Female,” “The Hand that Rocks the Cradle,” “Unlawful Entry,” all of which follow the same formula. “Fear” still manages to succeed due to craftsmanship and conviction.

“Fear” takes its time to develop the characters so that it’s all the more troubling when things inevitably don’t turn out to be as they seem. Instead of the antagonist being the most interesting character, as most of these movies go, the protagonists are set up in an interesting way so that we grow to care about them and root for them when things get ugly.

16-year-old Nicole Walker (Reese Witherspoon), after living with her mother for most of her life, is now living with her father Steve (William Peterson), his second wife Laura (Amy Brenneman), and their son Toby (Christopher Gray). As to be expected, she doesn’t quite like this adjustment. The problems with this family are developed in a credible way, with tension and partial dysfunction.

While at a rave with her best friend Margo (Alyssa Milano), Nicole meets an older, gentle guy named David (Mark Wahlberg), who seems like the perfect boyfriend. He’s a nice guy, he respects her wishes, he doesn’t pressure her into sex, and says and does everything right. Nicole falls for him, and Laura sees him as a nice guy for her stepdaughter to date. But Steve, on the other hand, has his suspicions. To him, David just seems too right. And when David starts to show signs of his real (dangerous) personality, and Nicole comes home with a black eye, it becomes clear that David is not the nice guy that Nicole fell for.

This was Mark Wahlberg’s first real chance to handle a difficult acting lead role after his former fame as the rapper Marky Mark. As David, Wahlberg delivers a genuinely unnerving performance in the way he switches back and forth from kind and earnest to psychotic and furious. It’s like you can actually hear the ticking of the timebomb about to go off in his mind. As for the other actors, Reese Witherspoon is very convincing as the innocent, corrupted Nicole; William Petersen does strong work as the father trying to protect her; and Amy Brennerman is fine as the confused parent in the mix.

“Fear” doesn’t offer that many surprises, but it is well-acted and effectively creepy. It sets up the characters in interesting ways and plays the story from the sympathy we gain for the protagonists, so that the horrific moments really mean something. Everything builds up to an inevitable climax in which David and his friends attack the house with the family inside. It’s standard, but offers a few surprises as well. “Fear.” Boring title, nicely-done thriller.

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