The day-to-day pressures of life wear down a young war veteran in filmmaker Geoff Ryan’s emotionally intense drama Fray. Working in a wood mill after stints in Iraq and Afghanistan, the somewhat physically disabled Justin (Bryan Kaplan) survives each day as best he can. Seemingly always late on rent due to the lack of work hours in a tough economy, when Justin isn’t studying at the local community college he’s retreating into the woods to find some respite from his stressful environment.
As his mundane routine wears on, Justin strikes up a romance with Cheri (Marisa Costa), the young teacher of his community college class. At first everything is fine, but when Justin receives word that some of his friends still overseas have died in battle, it proves too much to bear and he again retreats to the woods, only this time perhaps permanently. Despite his standoffish behavior and attitude, Cheri and Paul (Wes Harris), his boss at the mill, continue to reach out to him, offering him the support he may not know that he truly needs.
Fray is a slow-boiling drama, which is to say that it moves at a very deliberate pace and allows the performances on screen to do the majority of the work as far as keeping the audience engaged. To that end, Bryan Kaplan is tasked with carrying the entire film and shows that he is up to the challenge. It would be easy to go over-the-top and explosive with his portrayal, but Kaplan plays it a bit tighter. His Justin has his moments and outbursts, but for the most part it’s a guy with a shorter fuse being put through a rough time.
He’s not looking for pity, he doesn’t feel unjustly put-upon. Simply, it’s just not easy out there to find work. And when you’ve got work, it’s not always easy to get enough hours to pay the rent. Justin isn’t making life more difficult for himself, beyond perhaps his emotional withdrawal from his supporters; he’s just trying to make do with what’s out there for him, and what’s out there isn’t much.
The film’s greatest strength, the performance of Kaplan, can sometimes make the acting shortcomings of those around him more apparent. While the film looks great, again, this is a story of performances and when one actor is setting the bar, the others have to match it or it’ll show. And whenever someone opposite Kaplan can’t meet him on a level playing field, you notice it. Nothing too horrendous that it requires calling out anyone specifically, but when the hiccups come, you know it.
I’ve seen more than a couple films about veterans dealing with life after war (and I know I’ll see many more), and what I liked about Fray‘s take was the realism and humanity in the film. There are no unnecessary conflicts or scenarios; the environmental and situational stresses would be challenging to get through for anybody, regardless of whether they’re a veteran or not. It’s this universality of the drama that allows the audience to relate to it.
And again, Fray sticks with the performances and appropriately doesn’t try any cinema tricks to induce drama that isn’t readily apparent; there aren’t any flashbacks, or sequences where Justin grabs his head in frustration while the sounds of war play in the background. Fray just delivers one vet’s experience direct and unassuming, and lets us experience it, for better or worse.
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