Halloween Horror: Frailty (2001)


Frailty is one of those neglected gems, modestly admired when it’s remembered, but usually forgotten. Perhaps if it had been released today, after Matthew McConaughey’s supposed “reinvention” this year as a serious actor (I say he’s always been good in good roles), Frailty would be recognized as the powerful work of focused dread it is.

I’ve championed Frailty for years, ever since Anders and I borrowed it from the video store we both worked at. I thought it was good then, but now I’m confident it’s great, in part because the film’s images and the feelings it conjured have stayed with me for the near decade since I first watched it. For me, that’s always a sign of a great work.

Late one evening, FBI Agent Wesley Doyle (Powers Boothe) finds Fenton Meiks (Matthew McConaughey) waiting in his office. Fenton is there to tell Doyle that he knows who the God’s Hand killer is: his brother. Doyle is understandably sceptical, but he lets Fenton tell his story.

In flashback, we see young Fenton (Matt O’Leary) and his brother Adam (Jeremy Sumpter) live a quiet life with their dad (Bill Paxton) in a small Texas town. The boys’ mother died giving birth to Adam, so Fenton takes care of his brother and cooks dinner for when Dad gets home from his work as a car mechanic.

One night, Dad wakes them up to tell them something important. He’s had a vision. An angel told him that he and his sons have been chosen to do God’s will. They are to destroy demons in human form. God will guide him to special weapons they can use to destroy the demons. He will send them the first list of demons to destroy soon. The younger Adam believes everything his dad says. The older Fenton knows better, though, and tries to resist the family’s divine mission.

Although Frailty opens with standard ominous music and typical images of newspaper clippings informing us about the chilling history of a serial killer, most of the film avoids tired conventions. It is isn’t exactly a serial killer mystery, nor supernatural horror.

Similarly, despite a story that involves not only a serial killer but also demons, the film isn’t gory. I admire that. Gore can be effective, but like any vice you need more and more of it to get the same effect, which usually means pointless escalation. And too often blood and guts are used to cover up a lousy script. Like the most disturbing films, Frailty moves us not because of what it shows on screen, but because of what it doesn’t, and also what it conjures within us. With its plain style but sharp focus it really gets under the skin.

Spoiler warning! If you want to go into the film cold, read no further. I don’t mention details below, but I do outline developments.

This time around I noticed how difficult to interpret the film is. Most of what we see would lead us to understand the film as a straightforward critique of religious fanaticism, the dark side of the inner light. Any person who defends killing people as God’s will is either crazy or evil, right? The film’s big twist, though, forces us to rethink everything we’ve watched, and to reexamine our own preconceptions. How do we read the flashbacks, which make up the bulk of the film? Are they objective narration, or from a character’s point of view? And if so, whose? More disturbingly, are the implications of the final shot anything but dark?

The film questions authority on multiple levels, and not just in the usual ways. Sure, we’re invited to question religious authority. How do you know God’s will? Is God’s will necessarily good? Next, paternal authority. Screenwriter Brent Hanley perceptively combines his story about a delusional or divinely mandated father with Fenton’s coming of age, a frequent time of sceptical questioning. Revelations about Agent Doyle also challenge the authority of law enforcement. After questioning institutions and social structures, though, we are finally asked to question individual authority. If you are absolutely convinced of something, such as that God told you to destroy demons in human form, are you right in following those convictions? Is trusting your gut, that is to say, yourself, a way to know the truth? Are our personal convictions reliable? The viewer has just been invited to assume one perspective for much of the film, but when that perspective is inverted, where do we stand?

Lastly, why the title? Does it refer to human frailty? If so, is our frailty our lack of faith or our readiness to believe? Like the ending, that’s up to you, but as the film suggests, you can’t always trust your judgement.

9 out of 10

Frailty (USA/Germany, 2001)

Directed by Bill Paxton; written by Brent Hanley; starring Bill Paxton, Matthew McConaughey, Matt O’Leary, Jeremy Sumpter, and Powers Boothe.