For a film that marks the debut of its director, writer, and one of its lead actors, 2001’s Frailty is a surprisingly tense and mature film. With Brent Hanley’s complex and layered script in hand, Bill Paxton makes a competent directorial debut with a strong supporting cast of veterans and newcomers. The end result is one of the most under-appreciated thrillers of the decade, whose weighty themes and mixed genre narrative ensure that it will be sought by all those looking to escape the mindlessness of torture porn and teen horror films.
The film’s main story takes place in the present, as Fenton Meeks (Matthew McConaughey) approaches FBI Agent Wesley Doyle (Powers Boothe) one night claiming his brother is the elusive “God’s Hand” serial killer. The majority of the film revolves around flashbacks narrated by Fenton to Doyle, as he recounts how one day his comfortable Texan family life was turned upside down. His widowed father (Bill Paxton) wakes him and his younger brother Adam (Jeremy Sumpter) late at night, believing he had been visited by an angel. The angel gives the father a mission to destroy “demons”, seemingly innocent people who are hiding their evil. While Fenton’s father and Adam swear to carry out this mission, Fenton is reluctant to support the murder of innocent people.
Agent Doyle slowly begins to believe Fenton’s story as it progresses, and Fenton offers to lead both to the rose garden where he believes his brother’s murder victims are buried. But things aren’t as clear as they seem, and Doyle suspects that Fenton is hiding something serious from him. It’s hard to go any further without revealing crucial plot spoilers, so the narrative summary will be left at just that. But as the film unravels in a series of shocking twists and turns, the audience’s perception of morality and faith is put to the test.
The concept of a “religious” horror film that doesn’t involve possession or female sacrifices isn’t very bankable, and unfortunately there isn’t a big market for a film like this. It’s truly a shame because Hanley’s script is solid and sturdy, and repeated viewings reveal nuances in Paxton’s direction that make the experience even richer. When given a deeper reading, Frailty also explores the effects trauma has on children. The father’s “revelations” have substantial repercussions on the two kids who end up following two philosophically different paths, but act as mirror images of each other. This is exactly the sort of complexity that’s missing from mainstream thrillers like Paranormal Activity, which put emphasis on shocking without empathy. Frailty on the other hand, creates the dilemma in which the audience might regret its empathy for certain characters.
A running theme of the film is whether “truth defies reason”, and how does one even come to terms with the “truth” after learning it. That’s not exactly what you expect from a film starring Matthew McConaughey and Bill Paxton, but Paxton does a great job directing at a slow but steady pace, letting the audience sink into the story enough so that the plot development keeps you emotionally involved in the characters. Matt O’Leary breaks through in his first major role as the young Fenton, and he gives a natural and sad performance as the tortured teen. Paxton himself gives justice to the difficult role of the murderous zealot father, while Powers Boothe defines Texan authority as Agent Doyle.
McConaughey tries his best to give a subdued and withdrawn touch to Fenton, but only makes it halfway there, at times delivering his lines with little craft. Casting his name was probably a marketing mistake, considering his target audience might not have been interested in a dark drama, while those interested in the story might have been driven away by his reputation. But for the most part he fits the role, which really isn’t given as much screen time as billed anyways. As a first time film, Paxton makes a few mistakes with CGI and shot choices, but his passion for the story is evident in his skilled use of cinematography and sound.
With the Blu-ray release, Lionsgate does a good job combining high technical quality and a good selection of bonus features. It has 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio and the Gothic style of the film looks great in high definition video. The making-of featurette is expansive and goes deep into the production of the film, while the three commentaries are done by the people most involved. Also included is Sundance Channel’s “Anatomy of a Scene” series episode with Frailty, which focuses on a key scene in the film in which Fenton and Doyle drive to the rose garden. Deleted scenes offer optional commentary by Bill Paxton, who says that he wanted to make the religion of the film ambiguous so as to specify that it was about religion and not a denomination.
In “The Making of Frailty”, when asked about what the film is truly about, most cast members and producers give answers varying in meanings, but all true. This sums up what the film is about rather clearly, because Frailty is a meaningful film that is a breath of fresh air in a tired genre that is sorely lacking in complex and emotional narratives.