Smith’s Verdict: ***
Reviewed by Tanner Smith
SPOILER WARNING! This is a new review for the 2002 Bill Paxton thriller “Frailty” in which I’m going to talk about my feelings toward the ending.
Previously on Smith’s Verdict’s original “Frailty” review…”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 it 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.”
A funny thing about this film is that I enjoy it while I’m watching it. And then when I think about one of the bigger twists (of which there are about three), I understand it, but I wonder if it was even necessary. Watching the movie again with that in mind doesn’t necessarily damage my viewing, but it does bring things to a new perspective that I’m not entirely sure was needed.
To recap, “Frailty” is a chilling story of a calm, loving father (Bill Paxton, who also directed the film) who live a normal, happy life with his two young sons, Fenton (Matt O’Leary) and Adam (Jeremy Sumpter), until he awakens them one night to tell them about a “vision from God.” Apparently, demons are walking the earth in the guise of regular people and it’s their duty, as “God’s hands,” 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: an axe, a pair of gloves, and a metal rod—“weapons from God.” Fenton can no longer doubt Dad’s motives when he brings home his first victim—a woman Dad claims is a demon whom he kills right in front his sons. Fenton believes Dad has lost his mind and can only watch in terror as he claims more victims, becoming a serial killer with Adam helping and supporting his father wholeheartedly. The story is told in flashback as one of the sons (grown up as Matthew McConaughey) explains to FBI agent Doyle (Powers Boothe) after revealing his brother is the one responsible for the killings which still continue.
The idea of a seemingly calm, sane father suddenly brought to the point where he kills people “in the name of God” is scary enough; the idea of wanting his young sons (one is 10, the other is 7) to assist him in his deeds is horrifying. And the film builds more tension from the kids’ perspectives and thoughts on the matters at hand—one wants to stop Dad, while the other joins him. It leads to a truly tense sequence in which Dad takes drastic measures with Fenton and locks him in his homemade dungeon for a week, hoping he too will get a vision from God. It leads to a tense climax in which Dad believes Fenton will ultimately follow in his footsteps and destroy a demon himself. Instead, Fenton brings it to a stop by turning the axe on his own father, killing him. Adam finishes the job himself, indicating that Adam will follow in his father’s footsteps and destroy more demons. Adam promises to bury Fenton someday in the same rose garden where they buried the other victims.
But wait. Earlier in the film, the McConaughey character, who has originally labeled himself as Fenton, claimed that the brothers’ promise was for Fenton to bury Adam. As he and Doyle explore the rose garden, that’s when he reveals his true identity—he is not truly Fenton but Adam. He has continued his father’s legacy. That’s one twist. Another twist is that all of this has been a means to capture Doyle, who is his next victim.
Now, this is a very effective twist, as is the realization that the real Fenton has grown up to become a serial killer and that Adam has “destroyed” him as a demon. It’s Adam’s belief that that’s why Fenton didn’t go along with him and Dad; because he was a demon. This would make for a disturbing portrait about what growing up with an influential, apparent serial killer could do to someone. And then comes the bigger twist…
Are these people really demons, or just chance victims of Dad’s delusional mind? Is the angel real or was it just a bad dream? We see one of Dad’s visions, of an angel visiting him and giving him his first list of demons, and it does seem slightly exaggerated, making us believe that it’s all in Dad’s mind. But then in the ending, what little ambiguity was left is suddenly thrown out the window, as it becomes very clear that the people whose lives Dad claimed were actually murderers and not innocent victims. We are shown their evil deeds, as well as Doyle’s murder of his mother. Dad and Adam were truly following God’s will. People find it shocking that “the axe murderer is working for God,” but the realization that the victims were never “human” but actual “demons” for God to demand be destroyed lest the Apocalypse come does make sense to those who strongly believe in God and it may actually be a relief to those same people, who would object to murders being done to “serve God’s will,” to get clarification. In that respect, it does bring everything around for a shocking revelation that I didn’t see coming. But at the same time, as “Frailty” was doing such a great job being a disturbing horror film with effective ambiguity up until that point, it is kind of disappointing that the film would feel the need to explain everything.
I originally gave the film a four-star ending, even with the ending, because I thought even with that in mind, it was still an intelligent, scary horror film with a theme of religious delusion taken very far. And the bigger twist isn’t even bad; it’s just that I feel like it would work better as a film without it. If we were to ask questions after seeing the film (without the twist) whether the angel was real or not and whether the people were really demons or not, it would bring forward interesting discussions about what it would say about religious fanaticism, delusion, and even about God’s will. As is, “Frailty” is a four-star film up until that shocking revelation. With it, in hindsight, I can still recommend the film but not as strongly as I did before, because even with it, there’s still a little ambiguity about whether or not there truly were demons or people who turned the wrong way and committed these deeds. Were they really destined to be that way? Were they truly demons? If they were demons, did they know it? Were they aware of their destinies to be destroyed? We saw their horrific wrongdoings but not their “demon form,” if they have forms under human skin. If God really is guiding these murders of the guilty, what does that mean?
But then again, maybe they are just demons and I’m thinking too much about it.
There are too many good things in this film for me not to recommend it. Different people are undoubtedly going to have different outlooks on the ending and what it all meant. I don’t think I can rate it three stars anymore. I wanted to rate it four. I wanted to love it as much as most critics did, including Roger Ebert and author Stephen King. And up until the final act, or at least until the bigger twist, I do love it and I do think it’s one of the best horror films I’ve ever seen. But with that bigger twist, it’s still a good horror film with something deep to talk about. It could’ve been deeper and it could’ve been better, but I have to review the film for what it is rather than what it isn’t. I still recommend it.