| April 16, 2002

In Frailty, Bill Paxton’s directorial debut, the novice director also stars as the widowed father of a pair of young boys growing up in a small Texas town circa 1979. When we meet the family, they are a simple, loving and tightly knit brood. This story is told through the eyes of the older brother Fenton, who is about 12 to the younger Adam’s 9. Fenton looks after his brother and is more mature than his age, having had to make due without a mother for most of his life. He cooks dinner for his father and brother and he takes care of stuff when Dad’s at work. They have a routine, and it works for them; their lives aren’t exactly privileged, but they are happy nonetheless. That is, until the night when Dad (the only name Paxton’s character is given) wakes the boys up and tells them about the vision he had in which an angel appointed him, and his sons, “God’s Hands” to help fight against the forces of evil on earth.
Now you can probably imagine the reaction most people would have to such news, and it wouldn’t be a positive one. Right away Fenton (Matthew O’Leary) realizes that his dad has lost it, and his young mind immediately begins grappling with the ramifications of that realization. Fenton, like his brother Adam (Jeremy Sumpter), worships his father, and while the last thing he wants to do is defy or betray him, he at least has enough common sense and intelligence to know that something is awry, unlike Adam, who buys his Dad’s beliefs hook, line and sinker. But rather than rock the boat and destroy the happy life they all have together, Fenton lets some time pass in the hopes that it was just a dream and that his Dad will forget about it and things will get back to normal. There’s no such luck, and soon Dad comes to them more frequently with the news of subsequent visions.
One vision informs him of three weapons he’ll be given to destroy the demons, another vision equips him with a list of the demons, disguised as people, they need to destroy. When his hands are laid on the victims, all their sins are revealed and it is their family’s duty to get rid of the demons once and for all, according to Dad. Adam claims to see the same demons his father does, and Fenton is left alone to combat the insanity enveloping his family. As his father and younger brother become more and more devoted to the reality of doing “God’s work,” Fenton realizes that life as he knew it is over, and that if he and Adam were to survive, they had to get away.
The story of his father’s visions is told by a grown Fenton in the office of a FBI agent (Powers Booth) who is investigating a murderer known as the “God’s Hands” serial killer. Fenton recounts his childhood in order to back up his claim that the Gods Hands killer is his brother Adam, and after hearing the details of his demented upbringing, it certainly seems plausible. The framing device reminded me of The Usual Suspects, as do some of the stories eventual twists, but the plot is a lot more basic and much less intricate than that accomplished neo-noir. This film works more as a horror-thriller, and it has more than its share of chilling scenes.
The notion of fanaticism as insanity is certainly a timely one, and the pure powerlessness Fenton has over the situation makes for some truly frightening moments in the movie. Bill Paxton plays the father with an effective mix of down-home commonsense and backwoods menace, and the moments where he reassures his sons of the truth behind his visions and mission are unsettling in the way that his earnestness comes off as equal parts insanity, ignorance, and blind faith. Indeed, several early scenes come off as funny because of the absurdity of the situation, but such levity is soon deflated when Dad brings home a bound and gagged woman and demands that his sons watch as he wields the ax that God provided for him. The two boys are at the mercy of their father, who is the only adult presence in their lives. Adam is too young to even fathom the idea that Dad is nuts, and Fenton is still too dependant on Dad, and loyal to him, to take control of the situation and go to the authorities. How do you combat something so insidious and non-refutable? And what if you’re wrong?
To reveal much more of the movie would be a cheat. Although the film is not perfect, it is effective and capitalizes on much of its premise. Some of the twists are quite obvious, even from the start, but there are enough to go around that several end up packing a blindsided wallop. Paxton’s work as a director occasionally gets hokey, and a few of the revelations are as facile as they are telegraphed, but the Southern gothic atmosphere is well preserved and the film benefits from the muggy creepiness of the locale. The child actors are adequate, each occasionally scoring high but also hitting some clunky beats, and Paxton’s own acting, while largely quite effective, flounders during a few scenes where his country-fried demeanor could have been better played as steely rage. The characters are also introduced with such little back story that the people they become (in the present day scenes) might seem a bit of a stretch, and that lack of character depth robs the climax of some weight. By the end, after everything has been revealed, the viewpoint of the movie has been subverted almost to the point of collapse, but if you sit back and go with the flow, enough of the story’s internal logic makes sense to satisfy.
On the whole, Frailty does a very good job blurring the line between insane religious zealotry and founded spiritual faith, and in casting that dilemma into the realm of family loyalty and obedience, the film generates some genuinely disturbing situations. Much of the film’s strength arises from the reality in which it is based, for it depicts a homegrown, all-too-human evil that is so believable (in this day and age) that when the story gets extreme it is easy, and even a bit comforting, to go along with it. The premise is compelling and provides for some truly terrifying moments, and for the most part Frailty doesn’t overreach. It stays within itself and delivers a solid, modest payoff, even though it stumbles a bit along the way.

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