Given Frequency‘s premise a son talks to his father who’s been dead for 30 years via the old family HAM radio I didn’t have much hope that the film would be good. And the film’s philosophy-lite ad campaign which poses a rhetorical “what if?” (dad didn’t die?, son didn’t grow up unhappy and feeling abandoned?) with a straight face didn’t provide much enticement, either. The frustration truly set in, however, when I realized there was a surprising potential for a provocative film if only its makers had not taken a wrong step at every turn.
When the narrative begins, circa 1969, Frank Sullivan (Dennis Quaid) is a Queens-born-and-bred firefighter and family man who spends his nights talking to strangers over a HAM radio. And, of course, 1969 is the year of the Amazing Mets, when Frank’s hometown team goes to the World Series. Apparently this is a very big deal, because the characters can’t stop talking about it 30 years later. Those 30 years go by in the blink of an aurora borealis, which, due to the magnetism it creates in the air, makes communicating over a HAM radio all the more exciting by allowing grown men to talk to their dead pa’s. By the fall of 1999, Frank’s son John has grown up (into Jim Caviezel) and become a police officer, under the wing of his father’s cop friend (and token black character), Satch (Andre Braugher). John still lives, by himself, in the family house, which hasn’t changed a bit. We know it’s the 90s because his best friend Gordo (Noah Emmerich) bemoans the fact that he’s “missed the boat” by not buying Yahoo! stock when it was cheap; and John’s mom, Julia (Elizabeth Mitchell) still working as a nurse and apparently moved to an apartment so John can have the house says something about seeing The Lion King. Otherwise, things are basically the same in both eras. (Who really needs all that period detail, anyway?) One evening, when Gordo stops by John’s place for a visit (and to cook, because his wife won’t let him do so at home, and all he did was “melt one frying pan!”), Gordon’s son (apparently no one in Queens has daughters), comes across a trunk containing Frank’s old radio, and, to demonstrate to the boy that there was such a thing as telecommunications prior to the web, John hooks up the machine and gives her a whirl. Presto, daddy’s on the air.
After a believable period of disbelief, John figures out the identity of his new unseen acquaintance, and, before long, lets his father in on the news and talks him into not dying (by telling him to act against his “instinct” during a warehouse fire he will be fighting the next day). Problem is, once the characters mess with history, everything goes out of whack. John really should have paid better attention to the moral of Back to the Future. Somehow, his father’s survival during the fire that killed him the first time around causes seven additional murders in the 30-year-old, still-unsolved serial killer case that John’s investigating, including the murder of his own mother. Go figure. It’s here, about a third of the way into the movie, that Frequency stops being a sappy father-son reunion and becomes a thriller. Genre confusion ensues. Essentially, John feeds his father clues from the case file so that Frank can track down the killer during his original murder spree. As notes and photos in the old file literally evaporate in front of John, he tracks his father’s success. The father-son team functions like a supernaturally souped-up version of the Hardy Boys, solving the crimes from two time periods. Fortunately for Julia (whose life is at stake), there are no more fire emergencies to distract Frank once he’s hot on the killer’s trail.
What is interesting, or rather, pronounced, about Frequency is the way in which it uses a series of cliches to construct the characters’ masculinity and examine the father-son relationship. The main characters are guys, men so generic and so sure of their gender identity that any audience member with XY chromosomes could presumably relate to them. These Queens-tawkin’ guys’ guys have the kind of jobs that little kids imagine real men have when they grow up, firefighter and police officer. (Presumably, they both would have become cowboys if they could have earned a living at it.) The audience is reassured that John isn’t some predictably hotshot homicide detective, however, when his ordinariness is illustrated by the fact that he cannot figure out how to set the clock on his mom’s VCR, and his friends have chummy nicknames such as Gordie and Satch (and they call John, Johnny). All of Frequency‘s men (except, notably, the killer) talk about baseball as if it was a religion, and the Met players are their saints. During flashbacks, when Frank isn’t talking stats to young John, they play catch in the front yard or practice riding a bike: repeatedly, men in this film are associated with active, sporty endeavors while the women have more feminine roles as nurses or silent supporters.
For a film so immersed in the men’s world women clearly have no voice or agency, and Julia’s most crucial function is her role as a (possible) murder victim Frequency clings to ideas of guyhood restricted to sports obsessions and generic civil service (fireman, cop) heroism. There have certainly been fascinating, complex films that have scrutinized masculinity over the last decade and a half Bull Durham, Fight Club, Ma Vie En Rose but Frequency cannot claim to be among them. Nor is it a successfully manipulative tear-jerker in the manner of Terms of Endearment or The Joy Club. Nah, crying is for sissies. And so, in an apparent effort to avoid dealing with the issues it raises masculinity or the emotional territory of a father/son relationship Frequency ill-advisedly turns into a thriller. A glimmer of hope emerges when John, tormented by his own changing childhood (as one parent lives and another dies), experiences conflicting memories, which the film delivers as a fragmented nightmare. This sequence suggests an opportunity for psychological terror as in La Jetee, or its popular derivation, Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys. Unfortunately, John’s terror subsides he deals with it (like a man) by not dealing with it once the detective plot kicks into high gear.
The audience, however, still feels some horror during the scenes involving the creepy-looking killer of ambiguous sexuality (and wouldn’t you know it, he has mommy issues). But these scenes don’t ask viewers to question their assumptions about gender and violence, like, for example, Mary Harron’s American Psycho does. Frequency offers no such commentary on power roles between men and women there just are roles, unchallenged and the nearly-irrelevant women (in addition to Julia, the film briefly shows John’s estranged partner, Samantha [Melissa Errico]) rely on the good guys to save and define them. Nearly as disturbing as the film’s obliviousness toward women’s positions in this world full of kings of Queens is actor Jim Caviezel’s complicity. (One can’t really expect much from Dennis Quaid, can one?) Caviezel, so beatific in Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line as an AWOL soldier whose soul is strangely at peace in the midst of WWII, here seems lifeless in his first big Hollywood follow-up. Whereas in his previous film, Caviezel’s character was caught in the center of a moving film about the war between men and nature, now he stars in a film so poorly constructed and contrived that its fantasy premise is its least artificial element.
The shorthand of a Mets season or nostalgic memories of riding a bike with a father who died young rings false. The makers of Frequency director Gregory Hoblit or writer Toby Emmerich “missed the boat” in getting to the heart of male-male, in particular father-son, relationships. Their movie misses potentially rich questions, such as: What if Frank wasn’t a perfect father? What if John grew up with a confused sense of masculinity because of his absent father? What if John’s mother had remarried? What if John was jealous that his best friend Gordo had a father growing up? Considering Hoblit’s filmography, which includes Primal Fear and Fallen, he obviously has an interest in issues of masculinity, identity, and detective stories. Too bad he is more concerned about the “what if?” of tired science fiction and thriller conventions than the more compelling issues at hand.