Genre Index




Frailty, 2002. Directed by Bill Paxton. Matthew McConaughey, Bill Paxton, Powers Boothe, Matthew O’Leary, Jeremy Sumpter.

Synopsis: Wesley Doyle, the FBI agent in charge of finding the "God’s Hands" serial killer who is stalking Texas, is visited one dark and stormy night by a man who claims that his dead brother is the killer. Doyle is unconvinced, but his visitor has a story to tell. When he and his brother were children, their father had an angelic visitation, or claimed to have one anyway. God told Dad that he and his sons were put on the Earth as the instruments of His will, that their mission was to "destroy" demons who have taken human form. To this end, God has provided blessed weapons: a lead pipe to bash the demons over the head and subdue them and an ax, with which to dismember them. The older boy, Fenton, believed none of this. He was old enough to know that chopping someone up with an ax is murder, despite his father’s protests to the contrary. The younger boy, Adam believed every word his father said. Over the course of time, their father brought home demons that were on a list provided by God. Dad claimed to be able to touch the demons and reveal their sins. With the aid of his sons, Dad chopped up the demons and buried them in the community rose garden next door. Fenton, tried everything he could to stop his dad, but his resistance was unheeded. In punishment, Dad compelled Fenton to dig a storm cellar under the shed, where they could slay demons at their leisure. When Fenton eventually balked at participating in Dad’s crimes, Dad locked Fenton in the cellar until God spoke to him. God eventually DID speak to him…and he knew exactly what he had to do…

"God said to Abraham, ‘Kill me a son,’
"Abe said to God, ‘You must be puttin’ me on…’"
Bob Dylan, "Highway 61 Revisited"

A Moment of Clarity: I like to think that this unassuming shocker is the result of Bill Paxton sitting at the premiere of Vertical Limit (one of the worst films of his career) and thinking, "Any more films like this and my career will be over." Paxton is workman among actors, who has been reliable support in films like Apollo 13, Tombstone, and Titanic. Paxton tends to tread water in films like these until he gets a part—usually in a small film—in which his talent comes to the fore. His performances in Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan and Carl Franklin’s One False Move were Oscar-worthy, even if the academy didn’t notice. His turn in front of the camera in Frailty is one of his best performances, but his performance behind the camera is a revelation. This is an accomplished thriller that doesn’t need to load the screen with graphic violence or visuals that have been pumped up with steroids. What we have, instead, is a film filled with ominous theological implications and a shocking depiction of an abusive family relationship. Frailty is a bold film that tackles a subject matter that would send most big studio productions screaming from the boardroom.

Angels and Demons: Frailty has an oddly ambiguous title that isn’t really explained by the text of the movie. The film pulls a neat trick. Ordinarily, one side of the religious fence is going to be able to sidestep the type of issues that Frailty raises. Frailty stacks the deck so that, regardless of which side of the theological divide one resides upon, the film has something to shock your sensibilities. For the true believer, there is the disquieting notion that God might tell you to do something so radically extreme as this. For the unbeliever, there is the secular horror of a religious nut whose activities scar the minds of his children. The film takes a side, but it might not be the side one expects, regardless of which viewpoint from which one approaches the film. At the end of the movie, the viewer is left with the question of whether or not good won out over evil or vice versa. It accomplishes this feat with some narrative gymnastics borrowed from, among other places, The Usual Suspects. The film gives the impression of being a puzzle movie, although, in the end, it asks more questions than it answers and provides a multitude of meanings. Is the film about the frailty of children? The frailty of faith? The frailty of unbelief? Maybe all of these and more, perhaps? The answer depends on what the individual viewer brings to the experience. The puzzle-movie aspect of Frailty is one of the few disappointing aspects to the movie, since it cheats to provide the ending. This failing is more than compensated for by the implicit reimagining of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre family presented by our central characters.

The Banality of Evil: The real strength of the film lies in its matter-of-fact tone and in the calm assurance of its performances. Paxton is excellent as a caring father who has gone around the bend. He’s not abusive in the traditional sense—he genuinely loves his children—so it comes as even more of a shock when he compells their participation in their crimes. He is an ordinary man with an ordinary job. The two kids, Matthew O’Leary as Fenton and Jeremy Sumpter as Adam, give nuanced performances, too. There is something about horror movies that brings out the best in child actors (for instance, Martin Stephens in The Innocents, Linda Blair in The Exorcist, Lucas Black in American Gothic (the television series), and Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense). O’Leary in particular is a match for Paxton, and the film is largely a contest of wills between their two characters. Matthew McConaughey delivers a convincing flat monotone as the film’s narrator, a tone that implies so many different things that one is never really sure what the role of his character really is. It’s his first really satisfying performance. As a director, Paxton has framed everything with the ordinary, a tactic that throws the extraordinary into stark relief when it shows up. Certainly, the one angelic visitation that the audience is privy to is all the more terrifying for where it occurs (Paxton is at work under a car, when the archangel, Michael, complete with flaming sword, descends from the depths of the engine). Paxton’s aversion to showing his character’s crimes on screen in grisly detail only ads to the level of unease generated by the blank-faced façade of the film.

The overall impact of the film is not visceral so much as it is philosophical. It asks the uncomfortable question of whether or not one should follow the dictates of a God who speaks to us directly and whether or not such a God can be real in today’s day and age. It re-frames the story of Abraham and gives it a different ending. God demands that a father kill his son in this film. In the Bible, God stays Abraham’s hand. In Frailty, God punishes the father for staying his own hand. This is clearly not a Christian God, and calls to mind dark echoes of the Andrea Yates case, in which Yates was convinced that God had told her to drown her children. Frailty goes all of this one step better, too, because it raises the possibility that God really IS speaking to the father (an idea that raises the further question of whether or not one can be justified in breaking the covenant of the Ten Commandments when God wills it). The contemplation of these ideas, if the audience thinks about them at all, provides a foreboding sense of unease that does not go away once the final credits unspool on the screen.