In the past, readers have appreciated a warning when a movie is best seen without any foreknowledge. Although I don’t quite recommend Frailty, if you think you might go see it, skip this review and any other reviews until after you have seen the movie.
With the Andrea Yates trial still in the public’s mind, Frailty has the potential to scare the wits out of moviegoers. It’s a truly scary movie with a great concept. Unfortunately the film doesn’t know how to end, which diminishes the experience greatly.
R for violene
Bill Paxton makes his directorial debut and casts himself as an off-the-deep-end religious fanatic. He receives instructions directly from God instructing him to slay half a dozen “demons.” These “demons” look human and act human, but Dad (Paxton) will know that it’s okay to kill them when he lays his hands on them.
“Dad” is a single father raising two boys, Fenton and Adam. Adam, the younger boy, listens earnestly to his father and believes dad’s stories about slaying demons. Fenton is old enough to know murder when he sees it and is as defiant as a boy can be to a domineering father.
Bill Paxton is very good as Dad. He is creepy and intense. His character would have been more believable (and perhaps more subtly frightening) had Paxton toned it down a little. With a less awestruck, more normal-seeming countenance, he might have really scared me. But he “movied up” his performance, and in the context of the film, it still works.
Their tale is told as a flashback, and as a confession. Fenton is all grown up (now played by Matthew McConaughy), and he approaches an FBI agent investigating the murders his dad committed back when he was a boy.
McConaughy lends the movie some star power, but his performance is flat. His role is mostly expository dialogue; it calls for very little action. It’s not a very meaty part for any actor, and McConaughy didn’t really spice it up.
Touched by an Angel
The point may not even need to be made, but the concept behind Frailty is terrifying. Our hero is a young boy, coerced from above by a strong authority figure (who has the backing of God Himself), and from below by his brainwashed little brother. In-between, his own senses of morality and sanity are squeezed to the point of collapse.
Having been subjected to some of the same stresses myself (and at the same age as Fenton), Frailty had the potential to be one of my favorite horror films. No slasher flick, no Hitchcock thriller, has quite come so close to my own sense of what terror is. Only the collapse of society into chaos might scare me more, and so far, nobody’s made a good horror movie about that scenario.
But as much as I was cheering for Frailty, I really can’t recommend it. The ending of the film introduces a gratuitous twist that raises all sorts of questions about tone, morality, and storytelling. And since you’ve been warned, I’m going to spill the beans. Stop reading now if you don’t want to know the twist.
God Damned Twist
The people dad killed were in fact guilty of heinous crimes. Dad couldn’t have known about them, so he must have gotten divine guidance.
But wait. If dad really was performing God’s will, then why does the first four-fifths of the movie play like a horror film, and why does it end with a creepy, haunting musical score? If demons were slain and God’s will was done, why is the tone not triumphant and cheerful?
Or did dad simply luck out, killing people who happened to be guilty of crimes? And if so, not to alienate the “tough on crime” crowd, but are people guilty of crimes really to be considered “demons?” Is it okay to slay people guilty of crimes as long as you have God’s permission? And why doesn’t God just let the justice system punish the guilty? After all, the movie takes place in Texas, where the death penalty isn’t very hard to come by.
The most troubling question to ponder is this: what kind of a God would make a man commit ax-murders in front of his children? The most relevant question is why in Heaven’s name screenwriter Brent Hanley would include such a gratuitous, senseless twist?
Although the ending is a small part of the movie, it makes a huge impact on one’s overall impression. So even though my gripe is with just a small part of the movie, it really is important. Because of a lousy ending, the entire movie — one with great promise — is ruined.
Give Bill Paxton credit for creating a great sense of tone, atmosphere, and terror. Kudos to the child actors who ground the movie and give the audience a sympathetic surrogate.
But damn them all, especially the screenwriter, for wimping out, caving in, giving up, and losing focus in the end.