Fall From Grace

Reviewed By Erik Childress
Posted 03/09/07 04:18:41

"And You Thought Jesus Camp Was For Crazies?"
5 stars (Awesome)

SCREENING AT THE 2007 SOUTH BY SOUTHWEST FILM FESTIVAL: Last year after seeing Amy Berg’s Deliver Us From Evil, I thought I had seen the epitome of what’s gone wrong with Christianity in this country. Father Oliver O’Grady had molested his way through most of California and the Church did its best to cover his tracks. His tale was on a grander, more encapsulating plain. But somehow a little community in Topeka, Kansas is home to a greater threat to our children. And their parents. And their relatives. And anyone who comes within earshot of Ryan Jones’ documentation of their beliefs and the “spiritual” war they are waging on this country. Specifically anyone who has chosen to leave the proverbial closet and those who dare to support that choice.

Fred Phelps has been the pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church for half-a-century. After losing his license to practice law, Phelps’ crusading tendencies took aim directly at the gay community. With his followers in tow (most with the last name of Phelps) they began a campaign to preach the evils of homosexuality and the wrath God is laying to this country in the process. With picket signs forming some variation of the Lord’s hatred of “fags” and multiple websites that include pictures of Matthew Shepard burning in hell, Phelps’ brethren are relentless and each one scarier than the next.

One of his sons, Jonathan, is never seen without one of those signs in his hands; at one point coming off like the bizarro Bob Dylan flipping different conclusions to his hateful catch phrases. Another, Timothy Phelps, has the stones to criticize the children of other religions since, I guess, the glass house he lives in has tinted windows. The daughters and granddaughters are no better and in one of the film’s more disturbing segments, their young children repeat the same gospel of homosexual hellfire. None of them know why they’re saying it. It’s just what they’ve been told.

From the ground up, no matter what their first amendment rights, Ryan Jones makes us first ingest the deluded lunacy of this group and then the long-term prospects of what amounts to a dangerous cult. Cleaning out a public park of widespread sexual activity is something even the most atheist of communities would support, but thanking god for 9/11, IEDs and dead soldiers is something else entire. Phelps’ parish has made the headlines for their picketing of war funerals. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” may not be the most pragmatic of policies, but to the Phelps clan it’s the same as getting in bed with the enemies. An acceptance of homosexuality in their eyes is the same as being one and they show up with signs reading “God is U.S.A.’s Terrorist”, “Fag God = Rectum” and the ol’ standard, “Fag Sweden”.

Jones needs only to put the camera on a tripod to expose Phelps’ family as a one-stop loon bin. He delves further though in providing a necessary context to their hate-filled diatribes. Bringing in experts like Dr. Warren Carter, the literal misinterpretations of the bible are given a necessary cleansing. Homosexual sodomy in its most vitriolic passages refers to child molestors. So, if Phelps wanted to go after NAMBLA I don’t think any of us would stand in his way. But as a rallying cry to abolish all homosexuals, their friends, their families and anyone who looks the other way, Phelps becomes the personification of evil in an already intolerant world.

Freedom of speech aside, which Jones cleverly stamps in an Illinois Nazi-kinda way through lawyer Pedro Irigonegaray (who has fought the parish for several years), Phelps represents more than just an ideology. Phelps may just be an old kook but his son, Timothy, promises the Phelps name will only get stronger after his death and that is something to fear. Through taped interviews, two of Phelps’ free-thinking children had enough of their father’s mental (and suggested, physical) abuse to disown the family forever. But what of those who truly believe that blood is thicker than water. How much of it will eventually be spilled to prove their point?

At just over 70 minutes, I wish Jones had given the film a little more time to expand on the hypocrises of not just Phelps, but soundbite Christians such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson who made connections between gay acceptance and 9/11. What does Phelps think about men of God later revealed to be same-sex pedophiles? Maybe there’s no straight answer to be received by a man who resembles the offspring of Phantasm’s Tall Man and Christine’s Roberts Blossom and says “picketing Kansas University (a hotbed of gay activity) is a good thing” while proudly wearing a Jayhawks jacket. The title is a bit misleading in that its in no way a representation of the man since there was clearly no grace to begin with. It’s more symbolic of Phelps’ upside down flag of how backwards our country gets when groups like his make Fox News come off as the more sensible ones in the film.

But in those 70 minutes, which I’ve seen twice now, Jones is able to provide such a nauseating gut punch that its impossible to forget. The group needs no help burying itself and after only 45 minutes, we need some sort of catharsis to abort ourselves lest our blood pressure reaches a fever pitch to immediate retribution. And Jones gives us just that with the story of Kelly Frantz, the widow of one Iraq soldier who faced the knowledge that the Phelps Klan were coming. I won’t spoil it for you only to say that if you want to see some true motorcycle heroes, forget all about Wild Hogs and be prepared to applaud Mike “Gunner” Minor and the Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association. It’d be nice to end the review on that happy sentiment, but the effect of Fall From Grace still lingers and the delusion of this group that their message is agreed upon throughout the world is too frightening to behold. Ryan Jones has written the prologue. It’s time to provide an epilogue before its too late.

© Copyright HBS Entertainment, Inc.