Sunday, September 21, 2014

Vital Viewing: Frailty (2001)

A man walks into a police station and demands to see the detective in charge of a slew of recent murders. A relatively simple start to what ends up being one of the most compelling thrillers of the last few decades.

Frailty, the directorial debut by actor Bill Paxton, is an underrated gem that at first glance almost appears as tame as an episode of Lassie- with a small Texas family just making ends meet but happy with the cards they've been dealt.

It's a dark, rainy night when Fenton Meiks (Matthew McConaughey) walks into FBI headquarters and insists to speak to the lead agent, stating that he has pertinent information regarding the 'God's Hand Killer, a serial murderer eluding capture in the Dallas area. He claims the killer is his younger brother, Adam, and says he can prove it by showing the agent where the bodies are buried.  Agent Doyle (Powers Boothe) at first thinks Fenton daft, but after listening to a few minutes of the improbable tale, he reconsiders.  And Fenton continues as we blast back to the past...

A father (Bill Paxton, whom we'll simply refer to as "Dad" because no name was given) is raising two young sons, Fenton (Matt O'Leary) and Adam (Jeremy Sumpter), on his own after his wife died giving birth to the youngest.  For all intents and purposes, they seem like quite the content family, with older Fenton taking care of Adam while Dad is at work, then the three sit down at dinner and discuss their day.

All seems completely fine, and truly is.  Until one day Dad wakes the boys in the middle of the night and tells them a wild tale.  One of God's angels appeared to him in his bedroom and gave him instructions for the three of them.  From that day on, they will be awaiting orders from God - for they are "demon-hunters" and must kill the unruly demons that are pretending to be humans in their neighborhood and beyond.  Dad claims he will be able to touch these demons - to "lay hands on them" - and see the horrific crimes they have committed as demons. Additionally, God will send them a list of demons that have to be exterminated.

It's obvious without a word spoken than Fenton thinks his dad has flipped his lid.  Younger, more impressionable Adam has doubts but is willing to cast them aside because it's his daddy. And daddies are only there to protect you.  If God spoke to Daddy then whatever God said must be law.

Dad takes the demon-hunting venture very seriously, and waits for more word from God.  When God leads him to an old barn with an axe inside, it is a "sign".  He is soon buying a van with very few windows,  acquiring weapons by "angel-visions", and writing a list of people demons to destroy.  At first, time passes and Fenton thinks perhaps his father has forgotten about his quest.  But one night he wakes him and his brother up, showing them their first demon victim.  He lays his hands on the woman and apparently "sees" her sins.  Adam admits to seeing this as well, so Fenton believes Adam to be under the influence of his father and realizes he is on his own.  His father then murders the woman with the ax and they bury her in the town rose garden adjacent to their house.

Fenton is soon punished for being an unbeliever when his father makes him dig a giant hole so that they can move their shed over it and use it as a cellar-dungeon for the demons.  After the second victim is killed, Fenton can't take it any more and runs off to the town sheriff, who takes Fenton home and doesn't believe a word he said. When he finally agrees to look in the shed cellar, Fenton's father kills him, and then gets mad at Fenton for making him actually murder someone.  It's obvious he doesn't believe he has killed anyone before. This is when Fenton knows there is no hope.

When the film bounces back to real-time on occasion, we can feel the pain and hurt of the life that Fenton has lead. The truly agonizing decisions that have been made affected the entire family, and left his adult brother Adam with a gun at his temple, saying he couldn't take it anymore.  But there is more to the story that is best left unsaid.  Newcomers to this film need to experience this movie without knowing anything at all, like I did.  I first saw it many years ago and just recently revisited it.  I'd forgotten how powerful it is.

Part of where this picture succeeds is the absolute believability of the father's fanatic character.  Paxton does such an excellent job portraying a man that has lost all sense of reality and right and wrong, believing that he has a job to do set upon him by a higher power, and he feels great pride in knowing God has chosen his family for this task. Equally as impressive is Matt O'Leary as young Fenton. As he grapples with knowing his father is bat-shit crazy, he also struggles with his own sense of right and wrong and exactly how he is going to stop his dad from continuing to murder innocent people. And of course, Matthew McConaughey as adult Fenton is very comfortable in these kinds of dark roles, and seems to pull credibility out of his back pocket on a regular basis.  He's great here as well, and it's easy to see how he got such rave reviews for True Detective - he's been perfecting his dark side for years.

Religious horror is often unnerving and always chilling, and films like this just drill that point home. It's because in the real world, there is so much wrong with religion - so many wars started and acts of terror and violence in the name of God or Allah or whomever is the chosen deity - that it makes it hard to see how religion is there to comfort and soothe us and bring us peace.  It's a rarity.

All in all, Paxton's direction is as first-rate as his acting, and when the film comes together for its final act, which is perhaps a tad predictable but nonetheless shocking, it's easy to place it among the best of thrillers, a psychological mind-boggler of the very best kind.  Seek this out, by all means.


Emily said...

I really need to revisit this one. It's so darn good. Roger Ebert actually gave this a 4-star review and made some great points about how scary it is because its premise posits that God is the kind of monster who would give this assignment to a widowed dad of two little kids. Such strong stuff.

Christine Hadden said...

Hi Em! I did notice that Roger Ebert gave this 4 stars, and I have to agree. I love the acting in this film all the way around, just great great great! Religion is always terrifying in horror. Sometimes just in general...