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Frailty (R)
Lions Gate Films
Official Site
Director: Bill Paxton
Producer: David Kirschner, David Blocker, Corey Sienega
Written by: Brent Hanley
Cast: Matthew McConaughey (Fenton Meiks), Bill Paxton (Dad), Powers Boothe (Agent Westley Doyle), Matt O’Leary (Young Fenton), Jeremy Sumpter (Adam), Derk Cheetwood (Agent Griffin Hull)
Rating: out of 5

Well I liked it, but then I’m susceptible to religious-themed horror. The Exorcist, The Omen —these sorts of movies keep me far more spooked and wide-awake at night than any number of H.R. Giger creatures, enjoyable as they are. Think about it. Even if you’re not the church-going, hymn-singing type, what kinds of horrors do we actually see in the real world? Malevolent computers run amok? Double-jawed carnivores? If only. No, we have to contend with sectarian hatred, religiously motivated strife, world with end, amen. That’s the power that religion-horror has over your basic haunted-house (or spaceship) story.

Somewhere in Texas, an FBI agent in charge of the “God’s Hands” murder cases gets an unexpected visit from a young man who claims to know the identity of the murderer. When calm, collected Fenton Meiks (McConaughey) walks into Agent Doyle’s (Boothe) office, the FBI man is at first inclined to regard him as yet another of the attention-seeking wackos who turn up in every investigation. Soon though, Fenton’s knowledge of particulars that haven’t been released to the press persuades Doyle to listen, and listen carefully.

The movie flashes back as Fenton tells a horrifying tale of family life gone crazily, surreally bad. In 1979, Fenton was about 11 or 12, living with his younger brother, Adam (Sumpter), and his affable father (Paxton), a hardworking mechanic and widower. Their life was a pleasant routine of school and work and meals in the little frame house behind the city Rose Garden. One night it all falls away, when Dad wakes the boys to tell them that he has received a vision from an angel of the Lord. He is to be an instrument of God, a demonslayer. Soon the angel will bring him a list of the names of demons he must find and destroy. The angel has told him that his boys are to be demonslayers too. Adam, eager to please his dad, gets with the program right away; but Fenton, who isn’t exactly a child any more, can only conclude that his dad is either insane or playing a joke of questionable taste.

The next day Dad hustles the boys through the morning routine so prosaically that Fenton is convinced he must have dreamed it all—until Dad reminds them not to discuss their family’s new mission with anyone at school. Horror #1: What happens when your sole adult relative, your reliable Dad, is clearly losing his fucking mind? Having a parent not be himself or herself any more is about the most destabilizing thing that can happen to a kid. I mean, if this can happen, does gravity still work? Are we all about to be flung off the spinning earth, into space? You can see these questions march across the face of Matt O’Leary, whose performance as Young Fenton is nothing short of award-worthy. Doyle listens, astonished, as Fenton relates his futile resistance to and unwilling participation in the family’s abductions and murders, and offers to prove the truth of his tale.

There’s so much right with Frailty that can’t be told without spoiling the unfolding story. Paxton is wonderful as Dad (who, like The Continental Op, never has a name). He could’ve gone real wrong by playing Dad as a raving zealot or as a dotty sort of Renfield. Instead he took the measured, intelligent way, yielding an iconic Dad who’s so commonplace in his concerns with who’s brushed their teeth and done their homework, that it’s all the creepier when he wields that axe. McConaughey and Boothe are both rock steady in their roles, and what a relief it was, by the way, not to have to listen to dreadful, Urban Cowboy “movie-Texan” accents.

First-time screenwriter Brent Hanley, also a Texan, has turned out a nice, disturbing little tale here, nice enough that we should look forward to his next work. Yet I have to wonder if the original story on the page made it to the screen intact. I mention this because Frailty is also a very nice-looking film, at one point to the detriment of the plot’s logic. Yes, this is a visual medium, but its stories need to hang together and not offer up howlers that strain our credulity. Paxton-the-director shows a fine hand with his actors, but could stand to toughen up and be ruthless about abandoning lovely but unserviceable visuals. But let’s not cavil. Frailty is worth seeing twice.

—Roxanne Bogucka

Click Here to read Roxanne's interview with director Bill Paxton


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