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Frailty

Director: Bill Paxton
Cast: Bill Paxton, Matthew McConaughey, Matthew O'Leary, Jeremy Sumpter, Powers Boothe

(Lions Gate; US theatrical: 12 Apr 2002; 2002)

Review [24.Nov.2009]

Where the bodies are buried

“He told me his audiences would love it.”
—Bill Paxton, on Fred Durst, on Frailty


Frailty is one grim movie. Start with the premise: a single father (Bill Paxton) conscripts his two young sons, 12-year-old Fenton (Matthew O’Leary) and 9-year-old Adam (Jeremy Sumpter), into the work of religion-fueled serial killing. Believing that he’s been called by an angel to “destroy demons,” dad spends several years, beginning in 1979, teaching his boys the best ways to sledgehammer their victims for the greater glory.


This baleful tale comes to you via the recollections of one of these sons, grown up into Matthew McConaughey. On a dark and stormy night, he arrives at the Dallas office of FBI Agent Wesley Doyle (Powers Boothe, who only has to show up in order to up the creepy ante of any movie), ready to give up the identity of the notorious “God’s Hand” Killer. Indeed, he says that this infamous serial murderer is none other than his brother, the now dead-by-suicide Adam, whose corpse he just happens to have outside in a stolen ambulance. At once chary and weary, Doyle always seems like he’s a step behind: does this mean he’s waiting t pounce? Does it mean he’s slow on the uptake? In either case, his apparent dimness helpfully makes everything take longer everything—from the rain mashing against the window to the lengthy drive Fenton convinces him to take to the place where he knows all the bodies are buried.


Fenton’s narration—aided by McConaughey’s performance, laconic, shrewd, and appropriately annoying—begins in a small, sleepy Texas town, where dad’s a well-liked mechanic and Fenton and his little brother walk to school together. One late night, long after dad’s tucked them in, he bursts into their bedroom with the news that he’s had a vision. Wearing his pajamas, perched on Fenton’s bed, dad prepares his kids for what’s to come: soon he’ll get word on three magical weapons he’s to use, and a list of demons’ names to hunt down. Adam thinks it sounds like they’ll be “superheroes,” but Fenton is horrified: he’s convinced that Dad’s off his rocker.


Fenton’s version of events includes lots of details—how dad had him and Adam saw and chop up bodies; how they buried the parts in shallow graves, in plastic garbage bags; and how he tried to resist his dad’s directives, while feeling terrified that it was no use (the one time he does get the sheriff out to take a look, the adults gang up against the boy—or at least, this is how it appears to a 12-year-old). Predictable, solemn, and slow-moving as all these gruesome turns may be, the kid’s perspective makes it extremely disturbing.


But while Fenton’s story is built on emotional minutiae, the film’s strategy is less graphic than haunting. Frailty‘s special effects are of the “classic” variety, very little blood, and lots of old-fashioned menace: ooky-falooky Night of the Hunter-ish shadows, high-angle shots of the kids looking tortured and afraid, and low-angle shots of dad taking sledgehammers to heads (that is, your point of view is that of the head about to be sledged). The first of these events is nasty indeed. The kids are left alone at home until wee hours, understandably fretful. When dad finally shows, a trussed up and already bruised nurse in tow, her mascara and lipstick smudged all over her tear-streaked face. The boys stare wide-eyed. “I need your help,” says dad. Da-dum.


Frailty‘s strongest indictment concerns the vehemence and horror imposed by the conventional, emotionally binding family structure—the boys’ faith in dad, dad’s faith in them, their mutual needs and fears following mom’s death. Moody, perverse, and full to busting with metaphorical cautions, Frailty makes the most of its ambiguous title: just what is the difference between weakness and cruelty in the name of God, and how do weakness and cruelty work in an effort to resist that calling? Much more interesting than the film’s plot is its exploration of the familial unit, as it is recreated by reborn-with-a-vengeance and frighteningly fanatical dad.


Given that it’s his story, Fenton’s perspective predominates, but this is sketchy from jump (and allows for all kinds of plot holes, courtesy Brent Hanley’s script). Setting up scenes he couldn’t possibly have seen, Fenton builds a structure that has to cheat to get to its “surprise” ending, that indicts a couple more family units. But the flaws serve a function, too, mainly, allowing you inside dad’s head in a way that, by rights, you shouldn’t be. Fenton knows specifics of dad’s visions (one angel comes a-flaming down at him while he’s under an auto) and activities (when he goes knocking on “demons”’ doors, he doesn’t look so much sinister as uncertain what he’s going to do next). Dodgy, maybe, yet it’s helpful that Fenton spends so much time on these sorts of details, as they reveal dad’s internal conflict between distress and faith, guilt, obsession, and vulnerability (whether this conflict is conjured or projected by Fenton becomes increasingly irrelevant).


Most of dad’s conflict has to do with his feelings and role as a father: that his wife has died is apparently a sadness haunting him, but it’s never quite clear where the word, the bid to kill, comes form. By the time he’s locked Fenton in a backyard dungeon he’s made the boy himself dig (for days), it’s hard to tell just what dad believes in (Adam comes by with a glass of water, that he pours through a crack in the floor, as Fenton slurps at the drops, shivering in the shadows below: this scene alone makes your skin crawl). Dad explains that the angel has informed him Fenton is a demon, but he seems to think that he can will it not to be so.


As this effort to believe in his son flies in the face of everything else dad’s been mouthing, you have to wonder: just how is he working all this out in his own head? Because you only hear it from Fenton, you can never know exactly how screwed up dad was all those years ago. But all this familial tussling is also entirely and, sadly, eternally relevant, and a likely good reason for Limp Bizkit frontman Fred Durst to promise Paxton an audience.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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