Every once in a while, a genuinely great horror movie—one that would rightfully be considered a classic, had it gotten more exposure and love at the box office—makes an appearance. It comes, no one notices, and it goes. But movies like this are important. They need to be treasured and remembered. If intelligent, original horror is supported, then that's what we'll begin to receive, in droves. We need to make these movies a part of the legendary genre we hold so dear. Because these are the unsung horrors. These are the movies that should have been successful, but were instead ignored. They should be rightfully praised for the freshness and intelligence and craft that they have contributed to our genre.
So, better late than never, we’re going to celebrate them now… one at a time.
Dir. Bill Paxton
“I cannot imagine a God who rewards and punishes the objects of his creation and is but a reflection of human frailty.”
— Albert Einstein
Frailty is a sobering look at the impact of religion on the American family. On its surface it’s about demons that may or may not exist, and one man’s belief that he was chosen to slay them with God-given weapons. But at its core it’s about the family unit. It’s about a man and his two sons, and how they are torn apart when one son follows the father, and one does not. And who is right? The son who follows unconditionally, or the son who questions orders and rebels at all costs? The movie is about free will verses destiny. It’s about knowing when to think for yourself, and when to recognize that you’ve become a man. And it’s about realizing everything you know is wrong.
There’s a scene in the beginning of the film where the family sits down to share dinner together. The younger son spoons a large helping of peas onto his plate.
Dad exclaims, “Whoa, Tiger! Save some for us!”
“I sure love peas!” the son shouts.
“I bet! You better be careful or you’ll turn into one!” Dad replies.
Yes, the dialogue exchange is unbearable corny and clichéd. You may even roll your eyes, and that’s fine. That's the point. It’s supposed to come across that way. The filmmakers are willing to embarrass themselves by showing you that this is a typical, American, drama-free, completely undiluted, and ably functioning family. There is not even a hint of something dark and seedy simmering under the surface. Dad is normal. The kids are normal. Life is…normal.
Until God talks to Dad...
It’s a fierce, black, rainy night when Fenton Meiks (Matthew McConaughey) confesses to FBI Agent Wesley Doyle (Powers Boothe) that he knows the identity of the serial murderer plaguing rural Texas who the media has dubbed the God’s Hands killer. Fenton confesses that it’s his own brother, Adam, who earlier in the night took his life because he couldn’t stand what he had become. Being that Fenton has stolen the ambulance containing his brother’s dead body and driven it directly to the FBI headquarters in Dallas, Agent Doyle is understandably wary of anything Fenton might have to tell him. But as the night grows late, Fenton reenacts the past for Agent Doyle, explaining that the events that led up to this night were set in motion long ago…by the boys’ father.
In this past, Bill Paxton plays Dad, the aforementioned father of two sons: Fenton (Matt O’Leary) and Adam (Jeremy Sumpter). The boys’ mother died years ago, and so it’s been just the three of them against the world—which suited them fine. As Fenton says in the movie, “we didn’t need anyone else.” Dad worked as a mechanic during the day, but always came home to his sons in the evening and spent as much time with them as he could. Fenton and Adam, separated by only a few years, lived fairly typical lives, though Fenton was tasked with some of the duties his deceased mother likely would have handled (cooking dinner for the family, keeping an extra eye on Adam). The three were close, and despite the loss of their mother, the boys were happy. They went to the movies, laughed about girls throwing up, and did other things brothers/boys do.
It all changes the night Dad wakes them up in the middle of the night and explains to them both that in a strange vision, in which he was visited by an angel, he learns he was chosen by God to slay demons living amongst humanity in human shells. His weapons in this crusade consist of an ax named Otis, a lead pipe, and a pair of work gloves. To determine who is a demon and who is not, he is to lay his hands upon them, and their sins will be revealed.
Understandably, Fenton immediately doubts his father’s claims, wondering if the stress of single-fatherhood has finally taken its toll. Adam, however, is quick to believe; his young age makes him prone to easily accepting such claims, and if his own father believed them, then why shouldn’t he? Why would his own father lie to him?
The hunt soon begins. Dad orders Fenton to take part, and the boy at first refuses…that is until he realizes that he really has no choice. As much as he believes that his father has gone insane, he still loves him and does not want the family to be torn apart.
It all leads to shocking conclusions that cap off the past sequence as well as the present. Additionally, Frailty ends with my favorite kind of twist—which I won’t reveal here. But those who have seen the film know exactly what I mean.
Bill Paxton does a fantastic job with his meaty role in front of the camera. It’s a tough one to pull off, as he has to bring humanity to a role that audiences will have no choice but to vilify and fear almost from the very beginning. To make the role of Dad clearly villainous and cartoonish would have been a disservice to the smart story by the Texas-born Brent Hanley. Of course it would’ve been easy to root against the “antagonist” as he slithers around grinning ear to ear like Nicolas Cage, covered in blood, punctuating each kill with a truly bad pun. But it’s the strength of Paxton as an actor that he can make Dad flawed, human, and sympathetic—all the while making you feel uncomfortable and hesitant whenever he is on screen. (This is something I often bring up in reviews. I always find characters that skirt the line between antagonist and protagonist to be the most interesting, and the role of Dad is no different.) Put yourself in young Fenton’s shoes: how far would you be willing to go to follow your father? For you, what would be the line between real life and insanity? To our eyes, what Dad is doing is clearly wrong, but he doesn’t believe it to be. He believes he is doing God’s work, and it’s because of this that his work is carried out with care and concern. Like Abraham from the Bible, Dad loves his sons more than anything, but it’s the love for his God that will determine his actions.
Matt O’Leary and Jeremy Sumpter do commendable work with their roles. Let’s be honest, child actors are always a gamble. Their inability to grasp the concept of the kind of movie they are making is always reflected in their performance. Luckily, these two know what they’re doing.
O’Learly puts more work and effort into his role than most established adult actors. He sweats and bleeds and suffers with his character—it gets to the point where you wish you could pluck him off the screen just to get him away from all the misery his life has become. The movie rides on his shoulders, and he pulls it off gracefully.
Younger Sumpter, too, has a tough job. He is reciting lines that, at his young age, must have little to no meaning. The real-life complexities of the idea of a “God” and what people who believe in him are willing to do, even things that seemingly violate basic tenets one learns early on in life—it’s a tough thing for even adults to work their mind around, let alone a child of Sumpter’s age. But he plays his part with great confidence and assurance.
The young actors’ chemistry as brothers is believable, and especially in the case of Sumpter, their performances are utterly in line with how real people would react to such a trauma. As Adam begins to follow his father more and more, he, too, does not become comic bookish and antagonistic. He avoids turning into The Bad Seed. Adam wants nothing more than to follow in his father’s footsteps, even going as far as producing his own “demon list” that God allegedly gave to him—filled with the names of people that have bullied him in the past. The scene in which Dad explains the difference between destroying demons and killing people is morbidly funny. From Fenton’s disbelieving point of view, Dad is clearly out of his mind, and so this explanation between destroying demons and killing humans is hypocritical. (Additionally, there is one sequence in the film where Dad is forced to take the life of a human being in order to protect “the mission”—and upon doing so, he immediately vomits and begins to sob as his sons bury the body, lamenting what he was “forced” to do—that he has only just now become a murderer.)
As Fenton suffers through one punishment after another for not following orders, Adam urges his brother to conform—to believe in his family and accept his own responsibility. He does so with the love and admiration a younger brother has for his older. In his mind, Adam is unable to see why Fenton just won’t join them. It’s intelligently and realistically done.
Powers Boothe will always be a dependable bad ass, no matter the role he is playing. And while he might not have much to do during the first 2/3rds of the film, it’s the last act that shows even as someone as deeply intimidating as Boothe can be shaken under the right circumstances. He so rarely gets to play someone with weakness that when it does happen, it makes the events causing his transformation that much more disturbing.
Despite his slew of truly brainless rom-coms, Matthew McConaughey will always be an actor who makes me turn one eye towards whatever project he has in the works. Yes, he’s made a shit ton of truly inexorable movies (most with Kate Hudson), but his roles in A Time to Kill, Lincoln Lawyer, and even We Are Marshall proves he has the chops to pull off a great performance, so long as he’s got the passion to do so. His role in Frailty is one that’s quite understated, dark, and disconcerting. Like O'Leary, it’s up to him to make this movie work, and it’s because of him that it does. His performance is supposed to make you think he’s insane, but at the same time, possibly telling the truth—all at once. You’re supposed to question what you are seeing and hearing at all times, because as McConaughey looks at you with his thousand-mile stare, and as his eyes shimmer from the appearance of tears despite the lack of emotion on his face, you have to know that there’s something not 100% right about Fenton Meiks. What filmmakers call an unreliable narrator is the one leading us on this journey into the past—so everything you see on screen must be doubted. Nothing is to be believed.
Lastly, we have Otis, who plays the ax. Yes, the odd choice to have a random name carved into the ax's handle might seem erroneous until you realize that the ax really is a character. Never in the movie is it just a random household tool, but rather something that has the power to tear apart whole families. It comes to represent what Fenton believes to be the lie – the insanity – his father insists on perpetuating.
The direction by Paxton is quite assured for a first time director. Most actors can make that leap successfully and Paxton is no different. The first appearance of the Meiks house – a former and very isolated residence of the gardeners who tended the Thurman Rose Garden, where the bodies of “demons” are soon to be buried – is haunting, nostalgic, and saddening all at once. As the brother burst from the trees and their large, white, farm-style house looms into view, the music (a subtly simmering score by the usually bombastic Brian Tyler) ceases, and the sounds of cicadas fill the screen. It’s perhaps the most beautiful shot in the film—a fuzzily recollected memory from childhood.
Another sequence that deserves special mention is the taking of the second “demon,” where Fenton is forced to play the part of an upset and crying boy whose dog, Trixie, won’t come out from under the demon’s car. What the soon-to-be-victim thinks are tears of sadness coming from this boy are actually from fear, as Fenton knows what’s about to happen.
(As an aside, the movie also makes awesome use of Johnny Cash’s “Peace in the Valley” in two very well done and connected sequences.)
Frailty is a movie whose ending I am desperate to dissect and explain in all kinds of tangential ways why it’s so awesome, but to those who haven’t yet seen this film, I would hate to ruin it. What I can say about Frailty, however, is that above all, it’s terrifying…because it could happen. And it does, every day. Even today entire wars are begun over the belief that God speaks through his followers and orders them to destroy the unclean and the infidel. And really…what’s scarier? Jason Voorhees wielding an ax and coming at you…or your own father killing someone else in front of you as you beg and plead him to stop?
Most films based on faith, religion, and peoples’ ties to both tend to come down on one side of the fence: either religion is good, or bad. Frailty manages to show you that it’s both. It shows you what it’s done to a simple family that, after losing their wife/mother, has already suffered enough. But it also shows you that sometimes you’re right to have faith, and you’re right to follow it, no matter the circumstances.