Monday, October 20, 2014

Nick's Pick: Frailty

Film: Frailty
Format: DVD from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.

This is the tenth of a series of monthly reviews suggested by Nick Jobe at Your Face.

When we went through the list of films that Nick had given me, Frailty came up as the choice for October since it is a film with dark themes and strong horror elements. I’ve labelled this a horror movie, but I’m not sure it actually is one. It’s far closer to a thriller, but there’s enough horror here that I’m not really going to quibble over it. This also happens to be the first feature-length film directed by Bill Paxton, which makes it interesting in its own right.

Somewhere in East Texas, there is a suspected serial killer known as God’s Hand. There have been a number of disappearances but only a single body found. Wesley Doyle (Powers Boothe) is the FBI agent in charge of the investigation. He gets a break one rainy evening when a man named Fenton Meiks (Matthew McConaughey) walks into his office and claims that not only is the God’s Hand killer dead, but that he knows who it was: it was his brother (Levi Kreis).

This sets off a long series of flashbacks as Fenton attempts to explain exactly how he knows that his brother was the killer. It begins years in the past when Fenton and his brother were much younger. Fenton (Matt O’Leary as a youth) is the older and seems to be best friends with his brother Adam (Jeremy Sumpter). Their mother died giving birth to Adam, so it is just the two boys and their father (Bill Paxton). Life is okay until one night everything caves in. Dad wakes them up and tells them that he has been visited by an angel. The end times are coming and Satan has released a horde of demons on the world. The three of them have been charged by God to track down and kill these demons. Not only will they be supplied with holy weapons, but they will also be delivered a list of those who are to be targeted.

Within the week, they have their weapons: a pair of gloves to prevent them from touching the demons unless it is necessary, a lead pipe to knock them unconscious, and a wicked double-headed axe with “Otis” carved onto the handle to act as the final agent of demonic destruction. Not long after this, Dad shows up with the first demonic imposter/victim. He finds that when he touches those he has captured, their crimes are revealed to him (but not to us). Adam claims to see the crimes in a vision as well. And then, well, the demons are dispatched with Otis the Axe and buried in a public rose garden nearby.

And this goes on, with Adam buying completely into Dad’s new Old Testament-style philosophy and Fenton resisting it, assuming in a large way that his father has blown a gasket somewhere mentally. This resistance has serious implications for Fenton, which include digging a massive hole in the backyard by hand; this eventually becomes a “basement” for the shed, which is naturally used to dispatch more of Dad’s demons. Eventually, Fenton resists enough that his is forced into a severe punishment and nearly starved to death before he acts out in serious ways.

All of this is, of course, in service to the idea that Fenton Meiks has arrived to help Agent Doyle in capturing the God’s Hand Killer, which Fenton assures him is his younger brother Adam, the one who always believed in Dad’s visions and claimed to share them.

Frailty gets a lot right. While not specifically a horror movie, it definitely goes for that vibe and runs with it, and does this with intent. There are no jump scares and surprisingly little gore, but there’s a constant feeling of unease around virtually everything that happens once things get going in the flashback story. There are no comfortable places here for the viewer, and that’s exactly what a film like this needs. We need to be kept on our guard constantly, and so we are.

A vast amount of this comes squarely from the performance of young Matt O’Leary as the young Fenton. O’Leary has the job of being the rational center of a film about a completely irrational and terrifying series of actions. He handles this beautifully, and he’s incredibly easy to like. He gives a very empathetic performance; without him, the film loses about three-fourths of its power.

The film also does an excellent job—up until the end at least when the question is essentially answered for us—of keeping us in the dark about Dad’s visions. Are the real? Is he truly being visited by an angel and told to slay demons or is he just a man with a terrible chemical imbalance and a desire to use an axe on people? My biggest issue with the film, in fact, is that the closing couple of scenes serve to identify one way or the other (I won’t say) the answer to that question. It would have been a much stronger and more disturbing and powerful ending with that question left unanswered.

Still, it’s worth watching. There’s a lot here for a late October night, and you could do a lot worse than spend your time with Frailty. Straight win all the way around, Nick. You’re 7.5 for 10.

Why to watch Frailty: It gets the creepy right.
Why not to watch: Weird theology


  1. Awesome. Glad you enjoyed this one. I haven't seen it in some time, but I do own it and think it's a kind of underrated gem. I also like my horror/thrillers with a religious bent, so maybe that's why I don't have some of the same problems you do with the film, but I do understand where you're coming from.

    1. I don't mind the religious bent at all; I just think it would be a lot more effective if it left the ending a mystery.

  2. I believe this is the first one of Nick's Picks that I haven't seen. It seemed like a pretty common horror film to me. From your description maybe I should check it out.

    1. It's pretty good, and surprisingly good when you consider it's a first-time director. I wasn't sure how much to expect from it, but I enjoyed my time with it.

      It's more thriller than horror, but it's definitely got a solid horror vibe.