Reviewed By Collin Souter
Posted 04/15/02 14:36:28

"Wouldn't this make a great double feature with 'Stolen Summer?'"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

“Maybe you’re not right in the head, Dad,” says Fenton to his father, who just happened to receive a visit from The Angels. This suggestion comes early on in “Frailty,” and I find it refreshing to see a horror movie where the screenplay is as smart as the people in the audience watching the movie. Maybe Dad isn’t right in the head. Maybe the characters who live in fear of him should run away. Or maybe they should stay just to keep an eye on him. These characters don’t waste a lot of time waiting to see how right or wrong Dad may be. Brent Hanley’s tight script and Bill Paxton’s taut, assured direction pulls us deeply into every scene, that we don’t have much time to think or wonder either. We know Dad’s not right in the head, but how wrong can he be?

“Frailty” tells its story in flashbacks. Matthew McConaughey plays Fenton as an adult. He narrates the story as he tells it to Agent Wesley Doyle (Powers Boothe). Fenton has just confessed to him that he knows who killed all those people in the “God’s Hand” serial murders, but his knowledge requires a back-story in order for it to be credible. We can see in Fenton’s eyes that he has grown numb from his childhood experiences, that he has carried this burden all his life.

Fenton grew up with his younger brother, Adam, and his father, known only to us as “Dad” (Bill Paxton). They have coped okay with the loss of their mother and Dad treats them as well as a father can. But one night Dad comes into their bedroom and tells them something rather alarming: He has received a visit from The Angels. The Angels want him to do away with the demons of this planet. Does this mean “kill people?” Yes and no. “We don’t kill people, son,” he says. “We kill demons. The Angels were very clear on this.”

I will try and be as vague as humanly possible with the rest of this plot outline. This is one of those movies where the less one says, the better. Not because of any major-plot-twist ending, but because this movie works beautifully when one doesn’t know too much about it. If I tell you everything, you won’t be shocked or taken by surprise. I will say this: The two kids become torn between their loyalty to their father and their fear of him. They have much to fear, but, at the same time, he has always been a good father. Also, he does seem to have a psychic connection to these “demons” he brings home with him. So, who’s to say?

“Frailty” keeps us thinking while keeping us in suspense. It has a deceptively simple script, one that doesn’t mess with too many sub-plots, but has layers upon layers of depth. An allegory on religious fanaticism and a chilling portrayal of middle America losing its grip, “Frailty” has been written so well, that even a simple “Goddammit!” near the end takes on a whole other meaning.

I made the mistake of calling “Frailty” a horror film, and that would only be painting part of the picture. “Frailty” manages to be a domestic drama, a psychological thriller, a sad story of loss and betrayal and a story of a father and son who must test their loyalty to one another, all of this under the umbrella of an horrific tale. One scene in particular where the Dad tells Fenton to, oh, let’s just say (without saying too much)...go to his room, will have viewers in tears of sadness while screaming in horror. I don’t believe I’ve had that reaction to anything in a movie since Peter Jackson’s “Heavenly Creatures,” another movie that defies description.

The cast for this movie is perfect. McConaughey, an actor I’ve always liked, but have seldom seen in a great movie, does a great job at narrating the story. He keeps his face mostly still, but we still wonder just by looking at him how much he is really telling us. As young Fenton and Adam Meiks, Matthew O’Leary and Jeremy Sumpter, respectively, have a natural chemistry. O’Leary, in particular, should be a front runner-up when casting agents have a hard time booking Haley Joel Osment.

And Bill Paxton, of whom I have been a fan since 1987 when I saw him in Kathryn Bigelow’s legendary “Near Dark,” casts himself perfectly in the role of Dad. As does Dennis Quaid, Bill Paxton knows how to play the everyman with all his sincerity. At the same time, nobody plays crazy quite like Paxton, and here he blends the two personas seamlessly. At the same time, he is a natural director and not one of these actors who has overstepped their bounds. Watch how he handles the murder scenes. We don’t see much, but just the sound of a—thwack!—gives us all the information we need. He has learned drama, suspense and even humor from all the greats he has worked with (and I believe he has worked with just about everybody).

“Frailty” stumbles in its pace a little in its third act, but that can be a common thing with thrillers such as these. Suddenly, it stops being a stunning mood piece full of dread and we’re made to put the pieces together to see if what we just sat through makes sense. It all does, and the result will most definitely surprise you. Once you have it, you’ll probably be leaving the theater questioning the morality of it all while maybe even thinking about what makes a human being decide to walk into a crowded building and blow themselves (and everyone else) up.

Don’t get me wrong. The movie doesn’t make excuses for fanatics, but merely tries to explain them a little. Fenton carries the voice of morality throughout the film, but still the movie dares us to wonder: Maybe in some cases, since we don’t know everything, to be “not right in the head” may not be so wrong after all. The very idea of this makes “Frailty” one of the saddest and scariest films in a long, long time.

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