USA, 2002. Rated R. 100 minutes.

Cast: Bill Paxton, Matthew McConaughey, Powers Boothe, Matthew O'Leary, Jeremy Sumpter, Luke Askew, Derk Cheetwood
Writer: Brent Hanley
Music: Brian Tyler
Cinematographer: Bill Butler
Producers: David Blocker, David Kirschner, Corey Sienega
Director: Bill Paxton


Grade: B+ Review by Carlo Cavagna

When you think of religious-themed thrillers, you think of mediocre films with half-baked biblical prophecies and a boatload of CGIs--crap like Stigmata, Lost Souls, and Bless the Child--all trying to replicate the success of The Exorcist, a film released thirty years ago. So when you hear that Bill Paxton's directorial debut, Frailty, is a religious-themed thriller, you may think of Paxton squaring off against a giant animated demon, like Ah-nold Schwarzenegger in End of Days.

There's no giant CGI demon. There's few special effects of any kind, and virtually all the violence is off camera. Frailty, which may or may not be about dementia, demonic possession, and/or a vengeful Old Testament god, is a deliberative film, not an action film.

Frailty opens with a mystery man named Meiks (Matthew McConaughey) showing up at an FBI office in Texas and announcing to the director, Agent Wesley Doyle (Powers Booth), that his brother is the Gods' Hand Killer, responsible for a series of brutal slayings. At first Doyle assumes Meiks is a crackpot until Meiks is able to describe aspects of the killings not published in the newspapers.

Meiks then relates the harrowing story of his childhood. Except for the premature death of his mother, it is completely normal until his father (Bill Paxton) claims to have been visited by an angel who has instructed him to destroy demons that inhabit the world, with the help of his two sons. The only problem is, these demons aren't imaginary monsters or particularly vicious dogs, but human beings. The angel names names. The younger son, Adam (Jeremy Sumpter), buys into the story hook, line, and sinker, but Fenton (Matthew O'Leary), is appalled. It's not clear what the cause of this delusion might be (could it have something to do with the death of Mom, you might wonder), but Dad has clearly lost his marbles. At first Fenton pretends it's a bad dream, and then he tries to talk Dad out of following through, to no avail. Dad is going to destroy demons, the kids are going to help, and that's final. The family that kills together, stays together.Daddy's an axe murderer

If you've seen enough movies, you will probably find some of the plot developments to be obvious. It's to the movie's credit, however, that they are still enjoyable--in some cases all the more so. If you suspect something may develop, you can hunt for signs beforehand, and if the film is well crafted, the search is rewarding. Do pay attention to the details, in which many of the film's clues and motifs lie. A number of Old Testament analogies are present, including the story of Abraham and his son Isaac. Such details help tie the film together at the end.

Frailty is not a film without some logical gaps (which can't be described without spoiling the film), particularly at the very end. It mostly holds together thanks to Paxton's skilled direction, which seems to be influenced by the work Paxton was a part of in A Simple Plan. Frailty is patient and moody, concerning itself more with psychology than trickery. Paxton's only questionable choice is the repeated use of a highly annoying musical cue, a loud and sustained chord played abruptly when Dad lays his hand on captured "demons," allegedly allowing him to see their sins.

Paxton's work as an actor is also top-notch. He often seems a bit of a goober in the way that he speaks and comports himself, but that is an asset here. Dad is no wacky fundamentalist or raving zealot with spittle flying from his teeth. He is a perfectly normal, hardworking guy as well as an extremely loving father, just one that happens receive directives from God to kill people.

The biggest-budget movie ($11 million) ever produced by growing Lions Gate Films (Monster's Ball, Gods and Monsters), Frailty tanked its opening weekend, finishing ninth and pulling in an anemic $4.2 million despite playing on 1500 screens. Though it's no Memento, we can hope that Frailty is given a chance to follow a similar path of success through slow growth and word of mouth. Dozens of great filmmakers have had far worse debuts than this one.

Review © April 2002 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images 2002 Lions Gate Films. All Rights Reserved.

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