Frailty (Bill Paxton, 2001)
[originally posted 11Nov2002]
Given that Frailty is Bill Paxton’s big-screen directorial debut, and his first trip behind the camera at all in almost twenty years, it’s rather amazing how little press this movie actually got. The critics liked it overall, which is usually a bad sign, since the critics and the public agree on almost nothing. The advertising budget was woefully misused, and thus the film pretty much flopped when it came out (just over thirteen million on a budget of eleven). It’s a shame.
Frailty is billed as a mystery, and perhaps folks who haven’t seen many mystery or horror films will buy into that; for anyone who’s read more than one Agatha Christie novel, though, the “surprise” ending will be obvious within ten or fifteen minutes of the beginning of the film. (If you haven’t seen it and are planning to, avoid IMDB.com, as well; it, too, gives away the twist. Don’t blame them; it’s unavoidable.) And this would have been a stronger work had Paxton and scriptwriter Brent Hanley not spent so much time on the twist and spent more on the film’s real subject—an examination of genetic mental illness that is far more disturbing than the mystery itself.
Wesley Doyle (Powers Boothe) is an FBI agent on the case of a serial killer known as God’s Hands. One day, Fenton Meiks (Matthew McConaughey) walks into Doyle’s office, sits down, and says “I know who the God’s Hands killer is.” Offering proof, Meiks takes Doyle on a two and a half hour trip to where he claims the bodies are buried, and during the ride, Meiks tells Doyle how he knows that the God’s Hands killer is his brother, Adam. The story he tells is the bulk of the film, told in flashback, when Fenton and Adam were much younger.
Bill Paxton stars in the flashback as the Meiks’ father, and it’s his best screen role since Near Dark fifteen years previous. Dad is obviously nuts (as Fenton tells him repeatedly), but Adam is very much taken in by his father’s beliefs that an angel is visiting him and telling him he’s supposed to kill demons in human form. All three principal players in the flashbacks (Paxton, Matthew O’Leary [Domestic Disturbance] as Fenton, and Jeremy Sumpter [Adaptation, Peter Pan] in his big-screen debut as Adam) are so convincing in their roles that after a while, the viewer starts to wonder if maybe Fenton’s the one who’s nuts.
Fans of the atmospheric thriller will find much to enjoy here. Paxton keeps the blood to a minimum given the subject matter (one thinks that if Boothe and one minor character hadn’t each used what Jean Shepherd called “the F dash dash dash word,” the movie would have been solidly in PG-13 territory), and the pace is far more in tune with movies like The Others than it is with your typical Van Damme movie. And while you’ll probably get the main question figured out early on, you’ll find yourself with many questions about the Meiks family, and you will have them long after the film ends.
A very good debut. *** ½