100 min., 2001
Written by Brent Hanley
Directed by Bill Paxton
My rating: ★★★★★
“Sometimes truth defies reason.”
* * *
Words not often heard: directed by Bill Paxton. At first one has to think, “The game-over dude from Aliens directed something? That’s gotta’ be awful. But yeah, I’d watch it.” But once you sit down and watch Frailty? You’ll wonder why the fuck he hasn’t directed more stuff, he is that good. He’s supposedly going to direct the movie version of Joe R. Lansdale’s The Bottoms, for which he would be absolutely perfect.
Paxton is actually a master behind the camera. He takes an incredibly complex and intricately woven story written by Brent Hanley and portrays it perfectly. Half of the movie is a period piece, much like in Stephen King’s It, and just like with It, it deals heavily with child abuse. It’s a startling story, and it’s one you won’t soon forget.
A strange man walks into an FBI office in Texas and introduces himself as Fenton Meiks (Matthew McConaughey) to Agent Wesley Doyle (Powers Boothe). There is a string of unsolved murders that began back in the ‘Eighties. The killer took some time off and has recently returned, and Dodd is the man hunting him down. Fenton claims to know who the God’s Hand killer is, and so begins his story of madness and murder.
Fenton had lived a regular life with his little brother Adam (Jeremy Sumpter) and widowed father (Bill Paxton) until the one night their father bursts into their room and starts babbling about how he’d just seen a vision of an angel. God spoke to him and told him that he and his sons had to dedicate their lives to destroying demons. Fenton thinks his old man is crazy, but Adam buys into it. At first they treat it like some kind of game, but then God hands down the list of demons their dad has to destroy, and it turns out to be a list of people in town. Then their father brings home one of these people, intent on destroying her.
Shit gets real. Real fast.
Long story short, Fenton claims that his father was the original God’s Hand killer, and then Adam took over for the more recent string of crimes. Adam has just committed suicide, and Fenton can no longer live with his knowledge of the truth. Hence his FBI confession to Doyle. Doyle is understandably skeptical, and he wants proof. Luckily for him, Fenton knows where the bodies are buried.
To tell you anything more about this story is absolutely criminal. If someone spoils the ending for you, sever the relationship. They’re possibly a demon, and they need to be des—ahem. Well.
Paxton goes all in on portraying the ‘Eighties in the flashbacks. Everything looks as it should have back then, down to the old fashioned style beer cans. But he truly excels when he shows the visions the father experiences. The best is when the angel delivers the list of demons to destroy. The father is working under a car, and the underside of the vehicle suddenly morphs into a high-ceilinged cathedral. An angel slowly floats down to him, drawing a flaming sword, and it’s all so quiet. The look on his face is awe with a touch of fear. He doesn’t even blink as the sparks from another mechanic dance dangerously close to his face. And the angel just glides down, pointing the fiery sword into the father’s face. It’s amazing.
There is an excellent scene in which the father and his two boys are hiding in a van, waiting for a pedophile demon to exit a store and come out to his car. This is the second demon the Meiks have dispatched, and Fenton is disgusted with what they’re doing. He knows these are people, not demons, and he wants to stop his father from killing anyone. There is a moment when Fenton looks over to his father, who is reading and not noticing much. Then Fenton looks over to the store and sees the pedophile approaching. You can sense his dread and his hope that his father won’t notice. He looks back to his father, who is suddenly watching the pedophile like a hawk, the book forgotten in his hands. It’s a great panning shot, and it puts you in Fenton’s place.
Here’s an interesting thing to note: all of the demons the father brings home to destroy? You never see any of them getting killed. The camera always looks away. Yet you feel absolutely certain that you watched them die. Paxton’s vision is so visceral that the mere power of suggestion is enough to fuck with you. You also never see the visions the father experiences, which adds so much to the mystery. It’s delicious.
There is also a startlingly beautiful moment when the father discovers the first weapon God has placed into his hands: the Otis axe. A single beam of sunlight from a cloudy sky points him toward a ruined barn, and inside, the very same beam of light illuminates the axe, and the reverence on his face is incredible.
As for performance, Paxton puts one in like he never has before. There’s a scene when Fenton expresses his doubts, and the father is trying to talk “sense” into him. Fenton lashes back at him, and you can see the hurt written across Paxton’s face. You can almost feel bad for him. Obversely, there is a scene in which Fenton is punished. His father makes him dig a hole in the backyard (which will eventually be used as a make-shift dungeon, but he doesn’t know that yet). It’s a deep fucker, and the kid makes the mistake of digging all day without using gloves. His hands are torn to shit. He can’t even hold a knife and fork for dinner. His father gives Fenton aspirin and tries to treat his wounds, although Fenton is very resistant over that. He’s told that he can rest up for a few days in order to heal, but Fenton is insistent on finishing the hole tomorrow. You can see admiration on Paxton’s face, and you can’t help but feel good when he says to his son that he’s proud of him. Some people complain that Paxton goes overboard with his roles sometimes. That’s true. Sometimes. But for the sheer lunacy of his character here, he plays it pretty restrained, like he wants to go Nic Cage crazy but he’s pulling himself back. Which is the perfect way to play Mr. Meiks. And of course there is his wonderful distinction between destroying demons and killing people. He will, under no circumstances, kill a person. Demons? They’ve got to be destroyed.
McConaughey, however, must have seen this as a dry run for Rust Cohle in True Detective. His narration is smooth yet slightly unhinged. He’s in utter control of his conversation with Doyle, no matter how crazy things can get. As for Boothe? He’s . . . Powers Boothe. He delivers a solid cold, growly tough guy performance.
Another great standout is Sumpter who manages to capture Adam’s childish nature and gleeful desire to help his father destroy demons. He’s like a child who doesn’t seem to understand the grim nature of what his father is doing. He’s an id run wild. When his brother is digging the hole, he wants to help out a little. Fenton gets pissed off and throws dirt at Adam, and Adam runs away. He shouts over his shoulder, “Butthole!” Like any kid would. But he really wants to get hands-on with his father’s moonlighting business of destroying demons. Still, he’s nice enough to his brother to bring him a glass of water when he’s locked up in the dungeon as punishment. One of the best parts is when Adam decides to make up his own list of demons to destroy, and they’re all fellow classmates who treat him like shit. His father finds it adorable, but he has to explain that they can only destroy demons, not assholes.
The only weak link is Matt O’Leary who plays young Fenton. He generally does a good job, but there are times when he’s just trying too hard. But there are some great kid moments, like when Fenton is talking to a friend about The Dukes of Hazzard, in particular about how pathetic Boss Hogg is and how great Daisy Duke’s titties are.
And then there’s the ending. O Lord, what a wonderful ending. You’ll be so surprised that you’ll have to watch the movie again. This time around, you’ll catch all the hints, and you’ll be mad at yourself for not getting them the first time. This is a film that will take up residence in your head. Here’s a good piece of advice: let it.Have You Read...?