Fever (1999)

First, a Murder, and Then Everything Goes Downhill

By A. O. SCOTT Published: February 2, 2001

Alex Winter's ''Fever,'' a somber, paranoid thriller set in New York's outer-borough bohemia, tracks the psychological unraveling of a young artist and drawing instructor named Nick Parker (Henry Thomas), who lives in a run-down tenement in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. The murder of his landlord sets off a chain of troubling events, some of which seem to take place in Nick's imagination.

''Fever,'' which opens today at the Screening Room, is an arresting example of what a talented filmmaker can accomplish with the sparest of means. Mr. Winter, who appeared with Keanu Reeves in the ''Bill and Ted'' movies, has since honed his directing skills on commercials and music videos. (He has also directed an off-the-wall comedy called ''Freaked.'') But unlike many directors who serve a similar apprenticeship, he rejects flashy effects and fast cutting for a more deliberate, traditionally cinematic approach. He uses a stationary camera, deployed at odd angles in vast, empty rooms, to create an atmosphere of palpable dread.

His sparse, efficient script provides just enough information to keep you off balance. Each scene is a further accretion of terror and uncertainty, a blurring of the boundary between Nick's precarious mental state and the equally unpredictable world he inhabits.

Mr. Thomas, whose anxious, sensitive face inhabits nearly every frame, manages to communicate Nick's torment without overdoing it. Nick, whose upper-middle-class Brooklyn Heights family hovers in the background, wears a protective reserve that looks, at first glance, like toughness. But as we watch him navigate between his life-drawing classes and the solitude of his shabby walk-up, we realize that he is barely holding on. (Later, in the film's only unconvincing sequences, we discover that his mental troubles originate in childhood trauma.)

His sister (Teri Hatcher) and a sympathetic life-drawing model (Marisol Padilla Sanchez) offer solicitude, but Nick seems drawn to the company of a sinister neighbor named Will (David O'Hara), who rattles on, in the scariest brogue since Gabriel Byrne's in ''Miller's Crossing,'' about Nazis and gnostics and murder. Meanwhile, a detective (Bill Duke), dressed in the requisite macintosh and fedora, comes around to palpate Nick's guilty conscience.

The story may not withstand skeptical scrutiny, but Mr. Winters's control of the picture's mood is so assured that doubt is as irrelevant as it would be in your most intimate nightmare. The solitary life of the young urban artist is stripped of its romance and exposed as a Kafkaesque daily circuit of frustration and loneliness leading almost imperceptibly to psychosis and despair. Even the Manhattan skyline, in countless movies an image of glamour and promise, is crushed under lurid sunsets and ominous clouds. Every shot seems measured for maximum effect, and when the pace suddenly quickens in a late action sequence on a deserted subway train, it results in a moment of pure Hitchcockian panic that reverberates like thunder in the fretful, melancholy air.


Written and directed by Alex Winter; director of photography, Joe DeSalvo; edited by Thom Zimmy; music by Joe Delia; production designer, Mark Ricker; produced by Christian Martin

WITH: Henry Thomas (Nick), David O'Hara (Will), Teri Hatcher (Charlotte), Marisol Padilla Sanchez (Soledad) and Bill Duke (Detective Glass).