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Fragments
(a.k.a. Winged Creatures)
(2008)

Director: Rowan Woods
Cast:
Kate Beckinsale, Forest Whitaker, Guy Pearce


Everybody at some time or another finds themselves facing some kind of obstacle. When this happens, it's a double-edged sword because not only is the obstacle itself troubling, you also have to do something to overcome it. Over the years, I have picked up a number of pieces of good advice concerning what to do when you have some sort of problem. For example, several years ago I was in a book store and I decided to flip through a book written by the famed self-help guru and motivational speaker Tony Robbins. As I was going through the book, I stumbled upon a section where he was telling readers what steps they should follow when they find themselves having a problem. He told readers that the first thing they should ask themselves is, "What is great about this problem?" As I read that, I though it sounded pretty silly. To me, a problem - any problem - seemed to be nothing but bad news. Neverless, that bit of advice stuck in my mind after leaving the book store. For some reason, I could not shake it out of my head. Sometime later, I discovered I had a problem, and I didn't know what to do about it. In desperation, I decided to ask myself that question that Robbins told his readers. To my surprise, I was able to think of a good side to the particular problem that I had, and the problem as a result didn't seem to be so hopeless. Subsequently, whenever I find myself with a new problem, I ask myself that question. I am not saying that at any time asking that question totally solves whatever problem I happen to be facing, but each time it definitely takes out a lot of the sting I happen to be feeling at the time with the particular problem.

Of course, the problems that I face where I use that particular technique to soften are pretty much entirely problems that may seem insignificant to some problems that other people face. For example, a person who has just been given a death sentence by some kind of criminal court would probably find it hard to find a positive side to his situation. (Though to be honest, I personally would find a death sentence preferable to spending the rest of my life behind bars.) Such thoughts along this line lead to an inevitable question: What do you do when something really, really bad happens to you? Something where a quick fix just won't do much good, if any that is. Well, I am not sure if I am qualified to answer that question. Pretty much everything bad that has happened to me in my life hasn't been as traumatic as, say, someone ending up having to spend the rest of their life in prison or in a wheelchair. What little there was that others might consider traumatic I found myself able to handle. Though that might be because I had plenty of time beforehand to prepare for the actual traumatic experiences - they weren't things that happened right out of the blue. So all I can do is report on what I have learned over the years. One such lesson was learning about the Kübler-Ross model, which originated in the late 1960s. What this concerned was what had been observed of many people who had the misfortune of having a really traumatic experience. It listed five stages people often go through. The first stage is denial, not wanting to acknowledge that what happened has happened. The next stage is anger. Then people try to bargain with the situation, to try and see if the trauma can be lessened to any degree. If that does not work, the subject often falls into a deep depression. Lastly, the subject eventually accepts his or her situation.

While I do think that the Kübler-Ross model does apply to many people who have experienced some kind of trauma, at the same time I think that every case of someone having gone through trauma is unique. Not just with the particular kind of trauma, but also what the victim subsequently Fragmentsdoes about it - if anything at all. Some people can quickly get on with their lives after the incident, but others, whether they are deeply scarred or simply unwilling to do the work to get past the incident, never manage to do so. Of course, the people who fail at trying to get over things may come across as weak and incompetent to people who have not gone through a trauma... though I am pretty sure those who criticize would think differently if they walked a mile through the troubled people's shoes. When I came across Fragments, its promise of portraying different reactions to a tragic incident greatly interested me. The tragic incident happens right after the opening credits. In a Los Angeles diner, a customer walks in and suddenly pulls out a gun, shooting at several other customers and the diner staff before shooting himself. What follows is a look at the survivors of the incident and how they deal with the trauma. Diner waitress Carla (Beckinsale, Underworld) starts to neglect her infant child as well as her own self esteem. Customer Charlie (Whitaker, The Last King Of Scotland), who had recently been diagnosed with cancer, feels that surviving the incident means that his luck has changed for the better, and travels to Las Vegas to gamble. Bruce (Pearce, The Hard Word), a doctor who just missed being caught in the diner shooting by mere seconds and later treated the wounded survivors in the ER, is troubled both in his professional and private life. And Anne (Dakota Fanning, Charlotte's Web), whose father was killed in the diner shooting, starts to obsess with religion, which upsets her grieving mother (Jeanne Tripplehorn, Basic Instinct).

Before sitting down to watch Fragments, there was one part of the movie I was especially curious to know how it would be handled by director Rowan Woods. That particular part of the movie was the massacre sequence. I knew that in order to really show how this tragic incident affected the characters, the scene would have to be shown in one manner or another. But I feared that Woods might accidentally (or even intentionally) sensationalize the sequence, which would be wrong in a serious drama such as this. Fortunately, this is not what happens. Through the massacre that opens the movie and the subsequent multiple flashbacks to it through the remaining running time, the massacre never feels exploitive in nature. Instead, it comes across as genuinely disturbing, starting with the first gunshot that comes out of nowhere and generates a real shock to viewers. Interestingly, in the violence that follows, Woods more often than not directs the killings and woundings in a manner that's not up front and center; most of the actual violence happens out of camera range, or is displayed in a somewhat vague manner, such as with the camera being slightly out of focus. The gunman himself is more often than not directed in a manner where you don't get a good look at him. Also, Woods prevents any flash or high energy from creeping into this moment of the movie. There is no pounding music, no quick edits, no feeling that you are being grabbed by the neck and dragged quickly into the fray. Instead, you are just stunned as the characters are when the shooting commences and instantly shatters the mostly bland normality these characters were just having.

Although the characters were, as I indicated in the previous paragraph, mostly dealing with routine issues before the massacre, the tragic incident does get each of them to go off into wildly different directions afterwards. The various stories these characters experience are all interesting to see, though that doesn't mean they are all perfect. Of all the stories, probably the most memorable one is with Whitaker's character. The main reason why it works so well is with Whitaker's low key yet mesmerizing performance. He sells his character's multiple weaknesses, ranging from suffering from what may be incurable cancer to being haunted by his memories of the diner massacre. The character has a great deal on his plate, yet it never comes across as being an unbelievable burden. The other members of the cast do a pretty good job as well, and their performances do compensate for some vague touches the screenplay gives their characters. For example, Pearce's doctor character eventually starts to drug the food he gives his wife, but for the life of me I could not figure out exactly why he was doing this. (The character has significantly less time in the movie than the other characters, so maybe some explanation got left on the cutting room floor.) Fanning's teenager character's conversion to religion does get some explanation (we learn, among other things, that she once attended Sunday school years earlier), but all the same her conversion to being a true Bible thumper seems to be a little too quick if you ask me. As for Beckinsale's character, it doesn't come to a definite conclusion at the end of the movie; her characters still seems to be drifting about.

But as I think about those supposed flaws in the writing of these and other characters in Fragments, I'll entertain the possibility that they could have been intentional. I don't know how I would act after suffering from a tragic incident - I could very well act in a way that my present self might find silly and hard to understand. More importantly, the movie does get one essential thing right about how people are after a dire tragedy. Way back when I reviewed the movie Sonny Boy, the director subsequently contacted me to say, among other things, that his movie has the message, "Once you're messed up, unlike in most movies there is no real happy ending. You will always be a bit off." He was right, if you ask me. Fragments shows that for these particular survivors, there is very little out there to help them. The hospital that they go to has a counsellor (Troy Garity, Barbershop) that talks to them, but pretty much all that he can do is give out pamphlets, since even he at one point more or less admits that the tragedy is something he's not really equipped to handle. One other teenager (Josh Hutcherson, The Hunger Games) who survived the diner massacre is even forbidden to talk to the counsellor by his father (Jackie Earle Haley, The Zoo Gang) because word might get back to the health insurance company the father is trying to apply for, which then may reject the family for having a pre-existing medical condition. Fragments offers no easy answers for viewers regarding what people who face a traumatic incident should do, but it will get you thinking that some sort of safety plan must be figured out in advance before the next traumatic incident happens. That is one reason why I feel this particular unknown movie should be seen by more people.

(Posted January 14, 2022)

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See also: An Enemy Of The People, Road Ends, Shoot The Moon

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