In some long-ago episode of ER, Doug Ross gets some help from a young doctor, Harper Tracy, in caring for a four-year-old AIDS patient. Later she asks him, "What do you do after a day like today?" Ross replies, "I tend to drink, but I'm not a very good role model." The next day it's revealed that Harper went home with Ross and slept with him. When confessing to her boyfriend, she explains that she was in need of comfort and that somehow, only a person who'd also experienced that same shift could have provided it.
In Pete Weir's quietly brilliant character study, Fearless (1994), Max Klein (played by Jeff Bridges) requires a similar kind of succor. After surviving an airplane crash, he finds himself drawn to a fellow passenger—Carla—whose two year old son died in the wreckage. When he first meets her, she's is inconsolable. A shard. "He hurt me forever," she says of God, to whom she would have turned for solace in any other circumstance. Her family is considering institutionalizing Carla because she won't leave her bed, let alone her home. The only person who can coax her out every now and then is Max, who describes himself as "a ghost" but who has entered that strange post-traumatic state in which everything is more vivid and immediate. To his loved ones, Max seems aloof and unreachable since the crash, but Max himself feels dazzled, awake, immortal.
In one pivotal scene, Carla confesses to Max that when the plane first began to touch down in the corn field, she let go of her son. She is bawling as she admits this and says she feels responsible for his death. When Max says to her, "There's no way you could have held onto your baby," Carla covers her ears and begins yelling the Hail Mary, as if the guilt is her only remaining tie to her son and must therefore be protected. The immensity of Carla's despair unfurls before our eyes.
For a moment, it seems as if Max will be physically ill. "Ah shit," he says as he backs away from his car unsteadily. Then he sees something off in the distance and looks hopeful. He guides the still sobbing Carla into the back of his car and buckles her seat belt. He places a large toolbox in her arms and commands her to hold onto it. "This is your baby," he says. "I want you to pretend this is your baby." The soft, gleaming strains of an organ fade into the scene. "This is your chance to hold on tight," he says. "To save him. Ok?" She agrees, and seems a fraction calmer. She clutches the toolbox. As Max fires up the engine of his car, a crystalline guitar line joins the organ and the song becomes unmistakable. "Hold on!" he yells. "Tight as you can!" The song gains momentum as Max accelerates down a darkened city street. "Pray to God to give you the strength to save your baby!" he says. A cement wall is coming into view. Max is driving straight toward it. "Holy Mary, Mother of God," Carla screams from the back seat. "Now and in the hour of our death," replies Max. He crashes into the wall. The final shot of this sequence is a close-up of the toolbox, splayed out in front of the car after hurtling through the windshield.
The particular U2 song Weir chooses to use in this scene is perfect. As Max speeds up, the sparkling, looped riff of it quickens from trot to canter. When the bass kicks in and the song breaks into full gallop, you can see that Max and Carla are lighting out for the territories together—sprinting away from some already rarefied expanse of human psyche toward a place where smashing a car into a cement wall not only makes sense, it's the only way things will get any better. And sure enough, when we see Carla again she is better. She knows beyond the shadow of a doubt there is no way she could have held onto her son. She feels overwhelming gratitude to Max for having proven this to her.
Fearless was based on a novel of the same name by Rafael Yglasias, and if you've ever read Doctor Neruda's Cure for Evil, you already knew that Yglasias is a skilled cartographer of some pretty remote quarters of the human experience. Bridges, too, seems impossibly wise. He conveys an exact quality of consciousness after a brush with peril—from the grandiosity for having survived to the radiant compassion felt toward fellow survivors. There's a psychologist in this film who represents the desire to eradicate trauma and a lawyer who represents the desire to capitalize on it, but Max shows us something infinitely more mysterious: the holy, transcendent state trauma can sometimes induce as well as the inherently transitory nature of that state. How Max saves Carla and returns to the corporeal world are acts of heroism more subtle than the rescue of his fellow passengers in the beginning of the film, but nonetheless triumphant. He gets back on the map, but with a starry look in his eye that marks him as having been to the place where the streets have no name.