FRAILTY(director: Bill Paxton; screenwriter: Brent Hanley; cinematographer: Bill Butler; editor: Arnold Glassman; music: Brian Tyler; cast: Bill Paxton (Dad), Matthew McConaughey (Fenton Meiks), Powers Boothe (Agent Wesley Doyle), Matthew O’Leary (Young Fenton), Jeremy Sumpter (Young Adam), Luke Askew (Sheriff Smalls), Derk Cheetwood (Agent Griffin Hull), Cynthia Ettinger (Cynthia Harbridge), Alan Davidson (Brad White), Missy Crider (Becky), Levi Kreis (Fenton); Runtime: 99; MPAA Rating: R; producer: David Blocker; Lions Gate Films; 2001)
“It’s all surface psychodramatics built around a creepy rural gothic mystery story, and all that spookiness gets in the way of a real story about human frailty somehow hidden away in the symbolic hole where the dead are buried.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
An unbelievable (not that incidents such as those depicted in the pic don’t happen) horror/thriller, in the same vein as “God Told Me To Do It,” that’s almost convincing until it self-destructs by getting too cute. It smacks of large dollops of film school screenwriting techniques offering many heavy-handed plot twists and trying too hard to outsmart the viewer with its supposed cleverness. It’s about a twisted way of seeing the Christian personal God, and the self-righteous holy rage that makes one insane enough to commit murder in the name of God and still think you are absolutely right (Remember 9/11!). It’s set in the dusty small West Texas town of Thurman, where an ordinary auto mechanic (Bill Paxton-the successful actor also makes his directorial debut here) lives on an isolated piece of farm property in a frame house that you get to by passing the town’s rose garden. The affable single-parent dad lives with his two young sons, the 12-year-old Fenton (O’Leary) and the 9-year-old Adam (Sumpter), and provides them with a happy and secure household. The boys’ mother died after Adam was delivered, so the boys grew up without a mother. But things change dramatically when dad wigs out after having an Old Testament vision of God, and becomes nuttier than a fruit cake to the detriment of the family and the state of Texas and to cinephiles who hunger after films with ideas that can pass a certain litmus test for sensibility.
The filmmaker uses the familiar chestnut of the flashback technique to spin his bizarre horror story as a scruffy, troubled man from Thurman, calling himself Fenton Meiks (Matthew McConaughey), comes in out of the rain expressly to see only Dallas FBI agent Wesley Doyle (Powers Boothe) and tell him that he knows who the serial killer is in the agent’s old unsolved case of the “God’s Hand Killer.” He says that it’s his brother Adam. When asked by the agent how he knows this, Fenton traces the story back to his childhood years in which he had happy memories until on one occasion his dad woke both kids up in the middle of the night and told them of a vision he had from God — where an angel revealed God’s special purpose for their family — to rid the world of demons. Demons must be killed, they are not people according to dad, therefore he’s not committing murder. He swears the kids to secrecy and tells them they might be the only ones who know Judgment Day has come, and it’s their job to be like superheroes to save the world from destruction. Soon a list of demon names is revealed to the potty dad, and three weapons to destroy the demons are also sent to use on the demons. The reluctant and fearful Fenton doesn’t know how to stop his dad, while Adam is impressed with dad’s visions and is quite willing to go along with ridding the world of evil. The voice-over to the flashbacks are provided by McConaughey in a hushed and serious tone.
Warning: spoiler in the next paragraph.
The killings begin when a Cynthia Harbridge is abducted and left tied up in the shed and her mouth has duct tape placed over it. In front of his children dad lays his hands on the woman and feels the presence of the devil inside her, and therefore feels reassured to give her the old ax and then buries her in the rose garden. Since there are more demons to get, he punishes his godless son Fenton for being a disbeliever and makes him dig a hole for 6 days (Dig the heavy biblical symbolism from Genesis!). When dad knocks off number two on the list, an old man pedophile, Fenton reports him to the incredulous town sheriff (Luke Askew). When the sheriff scoffs at Fenton’s tale in front of his dad, he nevertheless is killed because he knew too much. Dad owns up to that being a murder, but blames Fenton for causing the sheriff’s death and reasons God forgives him of murder because of the urgency of his special mission. For Fenton’s lack of faith in God he’s forced to be locked in the hole, now covered by the shed, and is given only water for seven days until he too can see God and get with dad’s program. When he wearily comes up from the hole and is treated to a macaroni dinner and tells his beaming dad he saw God, it’s back to doing God’s business in a few days for this family that prays together. This time a Dallas thug, Brad White, is given the ax by Fenton. But instead Fenton gives his dad the ax, while Adam finishes off Mr. White. The children report their father missing, and life goes on until they are now both adults. Into this rose garden sacred burial grounds arrive the FBI agent and the hand-cuffed Fenton, and first-time screenwriter Brent Hanley creates a wild scenario that is meant to keep the audience guessing at the weird tale’s payoff and even the identity of the man with the fed agent.
This is one ham-fisted story about losing one’s grip on reality by taking religious dogma too literally and fanatically. It’s all surface psycho-dramatics built around a creepy rural gothic mystery story, and all that spookiness gets in the way of a real story about human frailty somehow hidden away in the symbolic hole where the dead are buried.
REVIEWED ON 10/1/2002 GRADE: C
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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