Frailty (2002)

16 Mar


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Does anyone have the right to enforce their will on us in this world because of what they believe will happen in the next world? It’s a question that can work not only as the foundation for a documentary, but also for a gripping thriller. “Frailty” is such a film, and it’s a special case—an original, chilling story that sets itself apart from the standard serial-killer thriller.

In “Frailty,” here are a series of Texas murders simply known as the “God’s Hand killings.” There are no suspects and hardly any leads to begin with. Then one night, a scruffy young man, Fenton Meiks (Matthew McConaughey), appears in the office of FBI agent Doyle (Powers Boothe), who is investigating the continuing murders. Fenton claims he knows who the God’s Hand killer is. The killer is Fenton’s younger brother Adam, who has already killed himself. Doyle is curious about what else Fenton has to say about the killings, and also why Fenton waited until now to confess to anything—he states, “I’m here because I can’t live with what I know anymore.” So Fenton tells Doyle a tale about how it all started.

Seen in flashback sequences, we see Fenton and Adam as children living with their widowed father (Bill Paxton, who also directed the film) in a small Texas town. They seem to live a normal, happy life together, until Dad wakes the boys up one night to tell them about a “vision from God.” An angel has visited him, telling him that demons are walking the Earth and that it’s his and his family’s duty to destroy them. Fenton doesn’t know how to react to this, but Adam believes Dad and wants to help him. Fenton is even more frightened when Dad makes a list of demons to destroy—people’s names. Dad has three useful tools, “weapons from God”—an axe, a pair of gloves, and a metal rod. And then when Dad finally claims his first victim, Fenton wants to tell somebody, believing that Dad has lost his mind—“If you do, someone will die,” Dad warns his son. “The angel was very clear on this.” Fenton can only watch in horror as Dad claims more victims, becoming a serial killer with Adam helping and supporting his father wholeheartedly.

Are these people really demons, or just chance victims of Dad’s delusional mind? For that matter, is the angel real or was it originally just a bad dream? You certainly know that there’s something mystical afoot here, and certain things are left open for interpretation. Which is scarier—if it’s all real, or if it’s not? One thing’s for sure—the body count is definitely real.

“Frailty” is a very tense thriller—original and effectively creepy all the way through with the right blend of disturbing atmosphere and expository writing. And it does a great job of keeping the viewers invested all the way through. The situation itself is horrifying, and the story involving the two boys is probably the most disturbing, since they’re caught in a world they didn’t make where their father suddenly wants them to assist him in these murders (although Dad doesn’t call it killing people, but “destroying demons”). Fenton is constantly worried as things get worse, and constantly tries to convince Adam that “Dad’s brainwashed you; he’s a murderer, and you’re helpin’ him.” (Adam of course reacts the way a young child would—“Nuh-uh! I’m tellin’ Dad on you!”) Young Fenton and Adam are played by Matt O’Leary and Jeremy Sumpter, both of which are convincing and very effective—with the wrong duo of child actors, “Frailty” would not have worked as well.

Bill Paxton completely sells it with his performance in the film’s most prominent role. He doesn’t play Dad as a villain, but a sincere man who would never harm his children, though he believes that when God tells you to do something, you do it. Paxton is also a pretty good director. After having been directed by some very skillful directors in the past (Sam Raimi, Ron Howard, and James Cameron), this is the directorial debut for the high-profile actor. It seems as if he took lessons from the very people who directed his acting. He knows how to set mood and atmosphere, and uses suspense-tricks that even the late Alfred Hitchcock would have been envious of. For example, there’s one scene in which Fenton is sitting in a car with Dad, who is awaiting his latest victim to walk out of a nearby store. It’s a point-of-view shot—Fenton worriedly eyes back and forth from his father to the store entrance. You can feel that Fenton doesn’t want the man to exit the store, because he knows what will happen. From that shot, Paxton has me hooked and proves himself to be a more-than-capable director. (Also give him credit for having the murders occur off-screen.)

Paxton also does a great job with directing the present-day sequences, continuing the ongoing tension between the two characters of (older) Meiks and the FBI agent. Meiks is obviously going through a deep psychological trauma that came about because events that we see come into place, while he’s telling the story. But there might even be something going on with the FBI agent, who also challenges Meiks, thinking he’s hiding something from him. In that way, it’s more of a challenge of wits that ultimately comes together to put an end to the story. It’s cleverly handled, and keeps its consistently eerie tone.

I won’t give away the ending to “Frailty,” but I’ll admit that I didn’t see it coming. It manages to surprise us and mess with our expectations, and brings about new fascinating details about certain plot elements that kept us wondering. And yet, these new additions to the elements still keep us wondering because they also bring about something new to think about! Watch the film and you’ll see what I mean.

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