The new thriller Frailty grabbed me from the start. A man walks into FBI headquarters, introduces himself as Fenton Meiks (Matthew McConaughey), and announces that his brother is a serial killer who has been roaming around uncaught for years. The agent in charge, Wesley Doyle (Powers Boothe), is skeptical about the story but agrees to listen. There is something intense about Fenton that captures his attention. He seems credible, not like all the other kooks who come in to offer bogus tips or, worse, confess to a crime they did not actually commit.
The man then proceeds to unravel the story of the so-called "God's Hands" killings, which we see in flashback. The tale begins in 1971 when Fenton's widower father - identified in the film only as "Dad" (Bill Paxton) - comes to his sons late one night and announces that he's had a vision. Dad claims to have been visited by an angel of God who said the family's purpose is to destroy demons. The boys are confused, having been awakened in the middle of the night with this strange tale. But Dad insists that it's true, that God has chosen the family to carry out His will. Supposedly, the angel will provide them with three weapons to use in their mission as well as the names of the demons to be destroyed.
The killings continue, as more and more "demons" are revealed. Adam comes to believe what his father is saying; to his young mind, it seems more exciting than scary. But Fenton thinks his father has gone mad and is killing innocent people. He threatens to tell the police and at one point actually does. When that doesn't work out, Dad locks him in the shed basement until he learns to see God. He explains that, although he doesn't believe it, the angel has told him that Fenton is a demon, too.
Meanwhile, the film occasionally cuts back to present day as Fenton offers to take Agent Doyle to the site where all the unrecovered bodies are buried.
To call Frailty a horror film is something of an insult. The point here is not blood and gore (most of the killings aren't actually shown). Instead, this is a film that explores the way some people - be they serial killers, anti-abortion demonstrators, or terrorists - kill in the name of God. The character of Dad sees no problem with his actions; he's not killing people, he's destroying demons. To him, there's a difference. Does his belief, his absolute certainty, that God has instructed him to do this make it all right? He believes yes, but Fenton thinks otherwise. The film challenges your ideas by never quite coming down on one side or the other about the validity of Dad's visions. On the surface, they seem to be nothing more than delusions. However, late in the film there is a scene which suggests his claims might be legitimate. Do mere coincidences account for this? Was he really visited by an angel? Would God order someone to murder people when the Bible says "Thou Shalt Not Kill"? These are the kinds of ideas the picture brings up. (For the record, I think Dad's visions were unreal, but either way you take it, the implications are staggering.)
It's frightening the way this movie depicts the psychological damage done to the children. If their father is correct, he is therefore enticing his kids to murder other people. If he is wrong, these innocent children are left to watch their father slowly sink into a psychopathic hallucination. Either way, this is a genuine tragedy.
Bill Paxton makes his directorial debut here, and he instantly proves himself a first-class filmmaker. Everything in this movie is perfectly balanced. The ideological elements don't get lost in the horror, and the horror never gets overwhelmed by the ideology. The focus stays on the impact of this event on the children and the reasons why it happens in the first place. Paxton gets superb performances from the entire cast and delivers one himself. The ending has all the requisite plot twists we come to expect, but the director's careful sense of atmosphere allows them to add to the mystery rather than just seeming like a stunt.
Frailty is ambitious in a way few films are. It tackles difficult subject matter with intelligence and sensitivity, while making the horrific elements as plausible as they are terrifying. This is one of the creepiest and most disturbing movies I've ever seen.
( out of four)
Frailty is rated R for violence and some language. The running time is 1 hour and 40 minutes.
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