Screenplay : Brent Hanley
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2002
Stars : Bill Paxton (Dad), Matthew McConaughey (Fenton Meiks), Powers Boothe (Agent Wesley Doyle), Matthew O'Leary (Young Fenton Meiks), Jeremy Sumpter (Young Adam Meiks), Luke Askew (Sheriff Smalls), Derk Cheetwood (Agent Griffin Hull), Blake King (Eric)
Frailty is a thriller about the horrors involved in following the dire commandments of a vengeful god. Told in flashback through the mouth of an unreliable narrator, it spins a dark tale about a loving, widower father who believes that God is speaking to him in visions and commanding him and his two young sons to destroy demons who look like normal people. The crux of the story, then, is the split between divine intervention and insanity: Is the father working as the hand of God, or is he just mad?
Actor Bill Paxton, who plays the father, makes his directorial debut, working with cinematographer Bill Butler to give Frailty a stark, eerie atmosphere of inky shadows and diffused lighting. Paxton has been acting in film for more than two decades, and he proves himself to be a solid director who manages to raise the hair on the back of your neck even when common sense tells you the scene should fall flat. He derives great impact with a minimum of gore (for a movie in which half a dozen people are hacked to pieces with an axe, there is very little blood on-screen), instead focusing on the characters' various reactions to the atrocious violence and allowing sound effects to inspire horrific images in our minds.
The story takes place in a small Texas town in 1979, but it is told in the present day by a man calling himself Fenton Meiks (Matthew McConaughey). Fenton shows up one night at the FBI headquarters in Dallas, informing Agent Wesley Doyle (Powers Boothe) that he knows the identity of the "God's Hand Killer," an elusive serial killer the FBI has been tracking for some time without success. Moving slowly through the tale, Fenton tells of how he and his younger brother, Adam, led a normal life until their father came into their bedroom late one night and informed them that he had had a vision from God in which he had been told that Judgment Day was near and that they were being enlisted to destroy demons. Adam, younger, trusting, and eager to believe his dad, goes along with this, but Fenton, older and slightly cynical, resists.
When the father brings home the first "demon," a nurse who has been beaten and tied up, Fenton can only see an innocent woman who is summarily murdered by his dad. Before killing/destroying her/it, the father lays his hands on her, claiming that God has given him the power to see all her worst sins, the ones that make her deserving of death at the blade of an axe the father claims is a magic weapon to which God guided him. (Paxton builds some of the most unsettling imagery around himself as the axe-wielding father, dutifully playing the role of the serial-killer with a disturbingly calm, "Aw, shucks, I don't wanna do it, but it's God's will" approach.)
First-time screenwriter Brent Hanley builds the narrative tension around the divinity/insanity question, but the most effective emotional aspect of the film is the struggle between the father and Fenton. Fenton, still a child, sees his dad as a deranged murderer, but is literally helpless to do anything about it (his one attempt to go to the local sheriff results in disaster). Fenton refuses to believe that his father's ghastly deeds could be the result of divine commandment, while the father bemoans his eldest son's lack of faith. Caught in the middle is Adam, who believes his father with all his heart, yet still has sympathy for his older brother and the suffering he goes through due to his conflicted relationship with their father. Hanley begins to pour on the plot twists in the film's final third, but it is ultimately the effectiveness of this triangular family dynamic driven by conflict between belief and repulsion that makes the story work.
If there is a weakness in the narrative, it is that Hanley takes an omniscent approach where a limited one might have worked better. The majority of the film centers around Fenton's view of what is happening, but there are moments in which we are privileged with the father's point of view, including a dramatic vision in which the underside of a car morphs into the arched roof of a cathedral. The film is at its most effective when we are limited to Fenton's view--one of the most unnerving moments is when the father shows up with the first demon/victim, bound and gagged, and, like Fenton, we are perplexed with questions: Who is she? Where did she come from? How did the father attack her?
In many ways, Frailty is a daring work--much more than just a horror film, it is an exploration of the relationship between humankind and God and what happens when God asks someone to do what is, in human terms, the unthinkable. There is reference in the dialogue to the Old Testament story of God asking Abraham to sacrifice his own son; God stayed Abraham's hand in that instance, which He does not do in Frailty. It is also deeply unnerving in that it depicts with an unblinking eye two young children subjected to truly awful events that are psychologically scarring. At one point, we catch a glimpse of Fenton and Adam watching an episode of the claymation Methodist children's show Davey and Goliath, in which Davey implores, "Why'd God let me do it?," a question that, twisted slightly to ask "Why'd God ask me to do it?," seems to be at the heart of the film.
The two young actors who play Fenton and Adam (Matthew O'Leary and Jeremy Sumpter, respectively) are thoroughly impressive in their performances. As a director, Paxton has a good eye for imagery (he packs the screen with horror clichČs that he someone makes new, from burying bodies by lamplight, to fears about being buried alive, to axe murders and dismemberment), but his true gift may be in directing actors, as he elicits honest, believable performances from these children that brings home the true horrors of the material. Even if the father is working by God's commandment, it is still the required grisly work that the film argues damages these kids for life. If it is, indeed, God's will, the question becomes, what kind of a God would ask such things? From a theological point of view, it is a return to Old Testament thundering, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" updated to the 20th century.
Constructed as a puzzlebox film, Frailty will likely inspire debate and discussion as to what really happened, even though it makes it quite clear in the end whether it was God's hand or insanity that drove the characters' actions. There will be an unwillingness on the part of some to accept the answers the film supplies, and Paxton leaves some elements just ambiguous enough to make them debatable. Plot arguments aside, Frailty is a powerful work, a rare horror film that strikes at deeper questions about spirituality and how the battle between good and evil is not always as clear-cut as we would like to think it is.
Copyright © 2002 James Kendrick