Danish-born film director Nicolas Winding Refn is the latest representative of a long line of European observers examining America that began with 19th-century French historian Alexis de Tocqueville. While de Tocqueville was concerned with everything from fashion to politics, Refn seems mostly interested in malls and the Midwest. And he is equally adept at turning crowded shopping centers and empty prairies into places of mystery and menace. Fear X’s principal character is a mall security guard named Harry (John Turturro), whose pregnant wife Claire (Jacqueline Ramel) has been gunned down by accident in the mall parking garage along with a policeman—the actual target. Harry’s pain is evident, but he is not so intent on revenge as he is on understanding why anyone would want to take such an innocent woman’s life. He meticulously pursues the killer’s identity, although his fellow security guards and the local police think he ought to drop the whole matter and get on with his life.

A set-piece early in the film, in which Harry arrests an elderly shoplifter, prepares us for his final confrontation with his wife’s killer. In both instances, he looks straight into the perpetrator’s eyes, never raises his voice, and tries politely to establish the facts of the crime.

By a strange coincidence which is never explained, the killer’s wife Kate (Deborah Kara Unger) lived in the house across the street from Harry’s and when on impulse he enters her now-vacated home, he discovers a strip of 35mm film negatives that leads him to a small town in Montana where she lives. No sooner has Harry traveled there and made inquiries about Kate’s identity than her husband Peter (James Remar) is alerted. He turns out to be a well-respected policeman who belongs to a secret clique formed to eliminate corrupt cops. These smalltown vigilantes apparently go about removing morally rotten lawmen “with extreme prejudice,” as the CIA euphemistically puts it.

No psychopathic killer, Peter is tormented by guilt for having accidentally murdered Claire, but at the same time his first loyalty is to his own family as well as his clandestine organization that operates both inside and outside the law. He must therefore eliminate Harry, whether he likes it or not.

Up to this point in Fear X a subtly ominous atmosphere, enormously benefited by Brian Eno and J. Peter Schwalm’s eerie music, has been created. The film also profits from Turturro’s excellent low-key performance, perhaps the finest of his career to date. And then Refn arbitrarily chooses to cover the screen with splotchy red abstract wall paint, suggesting nothing more meaningful than blood after a gunshot. This abrupt tonal and visual departure lasts an inordinately long time and to no apparent point. It acts as a kind of arty smear to wipe away much of the good work that precedes it. What happens afterwards, in Refn and the late Hubert Selby, Jr.’s can’t-resist-obscurity-and-ambiguity screenplay will disappoint most filmgoers and probably would have caused de Tocqueville to throw up his hands in utter bewilderment.