“It’s not your fault,” Ron (Troy Garrity) insists. He’s in a room with Carla (Kate Beckinsale), and she’s pacing. She’s just witnessed a shooting massacre at the diner where she works as a waitress, and is understandably edgy and evasive. A counselor on hand at the hospital to talk with people “like” Carla, people who have had “upsetting experiences like accidents or crimes,” he’s appropriately patient and observant. In an effort to help, he hands her a brochure, or, as he calls it, a “list of what you might feel. Everyday life might feel different and you might begin to remember things you don’t really want to remember.” Carla looks at him, at last: “You got these things printed out before in case something like that happens, and then you give ‘em out after?”
Though Ron dismisses her question (“That’s not important”), in fact it seems exactly the right thing to ask. It is, at least, the question that motivates Fragments, based on Roy Freirich’s novel Winged Creatures (also the original title of the film). Focused on trauma and efforts to live with it, the movie reveals the first violence—the anonymous shooter, the frightened targets, the handheld-camera perspectives—in pieces. One survivor’s memory sips into another’s, one individual’s present bumps up against someone else’s past. In this structure, the movie finds a kind of sense: no one recalls exactly the same detail, though all of the survivors are knit together suddenly in a kind of community, lumped together in media accounts (which are instant and sloppy) and in treatment (which are, like Ron’s, inevitably inept).
The flashbacks suggest that any effort to make order of the chaos is bound to fail. Ron’s approach is immediately tagged as coldly institutional, a one-size-fits-all approach that underscores how horrific a time we inhabit, that such preemptive programming might seem appropriate. But as the flashbacks bring the survivors together, they also separate them. Carla, unable to get through to the outside world on her pink and jewelly cell phone, feels guilty about those who were shot dead. She goes home to fetch her baby from the sitter, then proceeds to neglect the child, so he cries and she has to take him to the hospital, to be seen by the dreamy Dr. Bruce Laraby (Guy Pearce)—who left the diner just as the shooter came in, smiling briefly at Carla as he left. “Don’t you think everything happens for a reason,” she asks him, “Like us here, after what happened in the diner?” Bruce smiles, tells her to feed her baby, then returns to his own burgeoning obsession, treating his wife Joan’s (Embeth Daviditz) migraines.
If Carla’s made-up sense of connection to Bruce leads to abject disconnection from her child, Charlie (Forest Whitaker), a customer at the diner, faces another sort of contradiction. On one hand he feels horribly lucky, his neck grazed by a bullet during the “event,” but his life spared. As if to confirm his feeling, he heads to a casino, where at first he rolls seven after seven delighting other gamblers and confounding himself. It’s his time, he imagines for a minute, even as the first moment he appears in the film has him perusing a “Cancer Journey” brochure, another prefab institutional guide that cannot possibly do what it’s designed to do. At the same time, a police detective visits Charlie’s daughter Kathy (Jennifer Hudson), hinting that his very survival makes him look suspicious; that and the fact that he wandered out of the hospital in his backless gown, then disappeared into that night-and-dayless den of bets and booze and inevitable loss.
Another sort of loss drives the frightening transformation in Anne (Dakota Fanning), who watches her father shot in front of her. She and her best friend Jimmy (Josh Hutcherson) are helpless to stop what happens, afraid to look at each other or even to speak when they’re prodded by adults. Anne’s change has to do with God, or at least a pre-fabby version of God. She insists she has found solace in her faith, a faith that she never had before and now leads her to believe her dead dad is noble and her live mother, Doris (Jeanne Tripplehorn), is ineffectual. Anne’s judgment of Doris—leveled because she won’t kneel and pray with her—is a sign of her desperate need for order, a reason for her loss. “All these doubts and fears can fly away just like they came,” Anne instructs, “You don’t have to look at them. That’s what they want, not what God wants.”
Doris looks aghast (her response approximating the film’s own sort of assessment), then tries to coax her daughter back to earth. She identifies Anne’s new rigidity as a childish response to fear and doubt, a means of coping filtered here through school assemblies and instant messaging. Jimmy, who literally stops talking after the shooting, has another set of questions, having to do with his loyalty to Anne and his fear of disappointing his own father Bob (Jackie Earle Haley). The boy can’t help assuage Bob’s always-already fuming over another son, a soldier ruined by the war in Iraq and now languishing in a veterans’ hospital, abandoned by the institution (the government) Bob holds responsible.
The film points out that trauma is by definition overwhelming and treatments for it are elusive. Most treatments are in fact ineffective. So are rituals like funerals and memorials, brief respites from feelings of loneliness and guilt that inevitably resurface. Emotionally ravaged, morally confused, survivors muddle through. Even as it makes a show of complexity Fragments seems determined to pull together its various story strands. Long before the inevitable final montage rolls in, it feels like it’s been “printed out before.”