Frailty
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Bill Paxton, Luke Askew, Matthew O'Leary, Jeremy Sumpter
Director:

Bill Paxton

Writing credits: Brent Hanley
Distributor: Lion's Gate Films * 100 minutes
Rated: R for violence and some language
  (USA 2002)

Why is it that whenever you hear of people killing their children, they're always Bible-thumpers? For all of Pat Robertson's dire observations of pagan feminists who kill their children, when was the last time you actually heard of mass murders committed by pagans? Oh, there's the West Memphis Three, profiled in the excellent documentaries Revelation and Revelation 2 -- unfortunate kids branded as Satanists because of how they dressed. But think of some of the most grisly crimes in recent memory: John List killing his family to send them to heaven; Susan Smith, daughter of a Christian Coalition bigwig, pushing her car into the lake with her two children inside; Andrea Yates drowning all five of her children to save them fram Satan. Is it that transferring responsibility for their actions to God helps deranged people justify even the most heinous actions? Or are Biblical literalists more susceptible to some sort of supernatural beings "out there" that disguise themselves as divine? What if, instead of admonishing a man to kill his own children, such a manifestation told him to "rid the world of demons"? Would God assign to a human the task of retribution?

This is explosive stuff to handle in film, particularly at a time when the Israelis and the Palestinians are vying to see who can kill the most of each other sooner and the U.S. is headed by a bunch of guys who fear calico cats and regard themselves as divinely anointed to hasten the Rapture, thus ridding themselves once and for all of those pesky feminists, Jews, pagans, liberals of all stripes, Democratic politicians, Jim Carville, and all them Negroes and Mexicans (sic) who don't know their place. But in the midst of all the religious kookery in the world comes a brave, if flawed, and ultimately merely baffling directorial debut by the laconic Bill Paxton.

FRAILTY starts smashingly enough, with a creepy young man (Matthew McConaughey) showing up at a Texas (where else, except maybe Florida?) FBI office. His name is Fenton Meiks, and he knows who the "God's Hands" killer is -- a twenty-year-old murder case that was never solved. He begin to spin a tale to an at first skeptical agent (a dour Powers Boothe, who is creepy enough all by himself) of how his father (Paxton) went mad and insisted that he had been visited by an angel of God, who told him that these are the end times, and he has been charged by God to rid the world of demons. Fenton can no longer live with what he knows, and says his brother Adam, who believed the father's tale, became the "God's Hands" killer.

Most of the story is told in flashback as the hellish existence of a child whose idyllic world is suddenly turned upside down when his father seems overnight to go mad. Fenton and his brother Adam are forced to assist their father in his grisly task, while Fenton's growing hatred of a God who would ask a man to do such things walks hand in hand with brother Adam's growing enthusiasm for the job; indeed to the point that he claims to see the electrical charge that passes from the victims to his father as he grasps their hands in an attempt to discern their sin.

This is a dark, melodramatic story, and Paxton milks it to its Grand Guignol hilt. The score by Brian Tyler sets off the moods as they shift from dread to terror, though at times it threatens to overwhelm the visuals. It's obvious that Paxton studied the directorial techniques of Sam Raimi when the two worked together on A SIMPLE PLAN, for he strives for the same kind of calm menace, but while Paxton, in conjunction with cinematographer Bill Butler has some interesting shots, it's clearly the work of a less experienced, if promising director. Sometimes he's absurdly obvious, as when a sunbeam shines through a hole in a barn's roof onto a hatched embedded in a stump. It's an attractive shot, but jsomewhat over the top. He's more successful in his dissolves, particularly one in which the light shining on Fenton's face plays with the girlishness of young Fenton's (Matthew O'Leary) features so that the light almost appears to be a woman's blond hair -- a shot that segues into white curtains blowing at an open window.

Until A SIMPLE PLAN, I never thought of Bill Paxton as much of an actor, and unfortunately, in this film, under his own direction, he's returned to the kind of flat, rote-sounding line readings that characterize so many of his supporting performances. The major flaw with this film is that his character's transformation from loving single father into religious-kook killer has no context. There is no indication that this is even a particularly religious family, aside from Adam's singing of "Joy In My Heart" on his way home from school. Without such a context, old man Meiks comes across as merely a crazy person, which creates problems with the many plot twists Paxton strews in our paths.

Better performances are turned in by McConaughey and O'Leary as the adult and young Fenton, respectively. McConaughey is a far better actor than he he receives credit for. In his younger years, after being anointed the next "It Boy" by Vanity Fair magazine (a designation that seems always to be the Kiss of Death for a career; see also Gretchen Mol), he turned in a wry comic turn as a slacker who can't accept that he's no longer the King of High School in Richard Linklater's DAZED AND CONFUSED, and was actually reasonably credible in A TIME TO KILL. Astoundingly dumb career moves like turning down the Billy Zane role in TITANIC to play yet another attorney in AMISTAD didn't help. But now, in his mid-30's, he's losing that somewhat rabbity boyishness, and is developing a darker, more menacing quality. His flat, laconic telling of his tale, combined with his piercing eyes, make the adult Fenton a scarier presence than the story he tells.

FRAILTY is at times too reminiscent of too many other films. The imprisonment of Fenton in a dungeon of his father's making is lifted almost verbatim from the low-budget incest thriller LITTLE BOY BLUE, and a scene in which Adam tells Fenton, "We're just serving God's will! I'm telling Dad on you!" reminded me of THE LOST BOYS, in which a pre-addiction Corey Haim tells Jason Patric, "You're a creature of the night! Wait till I tell Mom!"

Plot twists have become de rigeur of late, after the success last year of MEMENTO and THE OTHERS. However, here the many plot twists that populate the last half hour of the film lack coherence, and indeed, constitute a far more ominous message than I think Paxton intended.

 

- Jill Cozzi

Review text copyright © 2002 Jill Cozzi and Cozzi fan Tutti. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text in whole or in part in any form or in any medium without express written permission of Cozzi fan Tutti or the author is prohibited.

 

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