Ric Roman Waugh, 2013
Fall From Grace
Screened at the SXSW Film Festival
Man, I hate Fred Phelps. Indeed, I suspect that everyone outside the immediate (albeit enormous) Phelps family who sees Fall From Grace hates Fred Phelps. Fred Phelps? What a bastard. Fortunately for all of us, however, Phelps also happens to be an utterly insignificant bastard, a pathetic old hatemonger with a loud but tiny group of supporters, most of whom bear his last name. If they didn’t harass the families of dead servicemen, there would simply be nothing to speak of. His braggadocio notwithstanding, the man is a gnat; no, he is nothing; less than nothing.
Fall From Grace, then, immediately runs into a problem: it needs to justify giving the man a platform. There’s nothing wrong with a documentary about Phelps — he is deranged enough to be at least initially interesting — but I’m not sure that simply putting his message up on the screen and then grunting and pointing is enough. And while Fall From Grace is certainly engaging as — essentially — a portrait of a madman and his cult, it taught me little, lacked any real insight. First-time filmmaker Ryan Jones largely sticks to the obvious (interviews with the Phelps clan and seemingly randomly selected members of the opposition) with the occasional neither-here-nor-there digression — did we really need the segment on the awesomeness of the soldier whose funeral the Phelpses disrupted? For all his attempts to be “objective,” Jones seems awfully insecure about where our sympathies lie.
The film remains, as you can probably guess, compulsively watchable: it’s hard to take your eyes off the fire-breathing Phelps, his beady eyes betraying nothing but seething anger and hatred. It’s also hard not to hate him back, if only for poisoning the minds of the bright little kids we see talking about “fags” and telling people they’re going to hell. But I’m not sure what, precisely, Fall From Grace accomplishes. I felt precisely the same way after watching as I did before.
-- Eugene Novikov