Director: Bill Paxton
Cast: Bill Paxton, Matthew McConaughey, Powers Boothe, Matthew O'Leary, Jeremy Sumpter
MPAA Rating: (for violence and some language)
Running Time: 1:40
Release Date: 4/12/02
Review by Mark Dujsik
Some of the worst crimes in history were executed in the name of religion. When people are convinced that they are right and just as commanded by a higher power, no force on earth can stop them. In matters of faith, reason and sensibility have no place. It’s this frightening reality that drives Frailty, the first great horror film to come along in quite some time. Unlike virtually every horror film to come along since the 1980s, Frailty depends on genuinely disturbing material and intelligent conflict, not gratuitous blood and gore and unmotivated shocks, to build its suspense and scary moments. There are very few moments of shock, and instead the film burrows into the mind. It’s psychologically wracking and haunting, and by the time the credits roll, everything that at first seemed cut and dry is opened up to even more questions, not simply about the film itself but about more important issues—faith, sanity, the nature of evil. None of them are easily resolved, even if they appear as simple as black and white to some people.
A serial killer calling himself the "God’s Hand Killer" has murdered six people throughout the state of Texas. Only one body has been discovered, but the killer left notes crediting himself with the murders at the other crime scenes. FBI agent Wesley Doyle (Powers Boothe) is the investigator in charge of the case, and one rainy night, a man calling himself Fenton Meiks (Matthew McConaughey) comes into his office and says that he knows who the killer is—his brother Adam (Levi Kreis). Doyle is pessimistic about the sudden revelation, and to try and convince him, Meiks relays a disturbing tale of his childhood—information kept silent for years. As children, Fenton (Matthew O’Leary) and Adam (Jeremy Sumpter) were raised by their father (Bill Paxton). Their mother died giving birth to Adam and no other relatives remained. Fenton has taken care of Adam since he was born, and their father loves them both. One night, though, Dad wakes up his sons and tells them that he has had a vision of an angel. The angel told him that his family was chosen by God to destroy demons on earth.
To identify the demons, the angel says God will send a list. These demons will look like normal people, but when Dad touches them, they will reveal themselves. To destroy the demons, God provides three weapons: gloves (to protect Dad from the demons), a lead pipe, and an ax. What causes the father to make such a sudden shift? He loves his sons, and from what we’ve seen, there’s no implication that this man is capable of violence. Is it because he’s lonely and is searching for a purpose in life, even if it is this twisted? We know he’s lost all of his family, but his two sons seem to give him enough purpose until his first vision. Is it based on a deep-seated religious belief? We never see him in church or participating in other obvious routines that would give us the idea that he would be capable of such fanaticism. Or did he actually see an angel and take instructions? Adam believes his father and, when he brings home the first victim, sees the demons made manifest. These could simply be the words of a young boy intent on pleasing his father.
Fenton, on the other hand, does not see the demons and is convinced that his father has lost his mind. However, he won’t turn him in and still loves him. He’s also scared to death of what his father could do to him, which adds another reason for not coming forward. Beyond starring as the father, Bill Paxton also directed the film, and his skill is apparent and important to its success. Within a relatively short period of time, Paxton establishes the normal dynamics of this family. The relationship between the two sons and the way each of them sees their father differently is clear. In its early flashback scenes, the film works as a domestic study, and when the darker elements suddenly come into play, they are all the more unnerving as a result. The violence is wisely done off screen, making sure unnecessary blood and gore don’t distract from the already frightening appeal of the story. The screenplay by Brent Hanley intelligently keeps the audience ignorant to the truth. Even when the script pulls out a few twists near the conclusion, it’s still somehow left open-ended, but the revelations add a deeper appreciation to the questions raised throughout the film.
Paxton not only helms the film with impressive care and skill, but he also gives an unsettling performance as the father. There’s not necessarily a change in his character’s attitude. He still loves his sons; in fact, sometimes it seems as though he loves them more after his experience. What Paxton accomplishes that makes him so frightening is the complete and utter conviction that what he’s doing is right—no questions about it. He also has a method to his apparent madness. He kills, but does not feel guilt because he sees them as demons. When he’s "forced" to murder an innocent man, he is overcome with remorse. In scenes like this, we still see a reasonable human being. Both of the child actors are strong. Jeremy Sumpter keeps young Adam’s attachment to his father believable and provides the film’s single most chilling shot. Matthew O’Leary has a difficult role as young Fenton, but he is very good at making tangible the internal conflict of his character. Matthew McConaughey provides a creepy narration and in his later scenes reminds me of why I thought he was a promising talent before making some bad career choices.
There are no easy answers to the scenario Frailty establishes. The film may or may not provide a clear-cut resolution to its theological dissertation; most of it ultimately depends on your perspective. Even the title doesn’t provide any clues (the word means both mental and moral weakness). All of this simply makes the film more haunting and challenging to the mind, the conscience, and many preconceived notions. It’s already easily one of the year’s best films.
Copyright © 2002 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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