You might have never been to America but you already have an idea what it’s like. And am not talking about how Times Square looks on New Year’s Eve. I am talking about its interiors. The small town America. The home of the American dream. The house with the white picket fence. All in a town where everyone is on first name basis and live like one big family.
Years of watching ‘The Wonder Years’ and several other films from the 90s have attuned us to this wholesome pure form of Americana.
Imagine what happens when a film shows you the cracks between the white picket fence, the critters that flourish under the yard. Of course you flinch, but you keep on watching because darkness does draw us in.
Bill Paxton‘s excellent debut feature Frailty is an exercise in getting his audience to flinch. Repeatedly and intensely. Frailty’s concerns lie with the Meiks family (Yes, pronounced as ‘Meek’). The two Meik siblings, Fenton (Matt O’Leary) and the younger one Adam (Jeremy Sumpter) are lovingly raised by their widowed father Bill Paxton (curiously referred to only as ‘Dad’).
They are a happy little bunch, Dad’s a blue collar worker who’s gentle and caring and Fenton obediently looks after his kid brother. Their early scenes together radiate such warmth that it only punctuates the horror that unfolds. Dad wakes up one night after having a ‘vision’ from God. He says God’s chosen their family to slay down demons. Demons who look like human beings but have done cruel deeds and must be slain before judgment day. Fenton looks dismayed, understanding that his father may have lost his marbles but young Adam believes every word he says.
Things only proceed to get more gruesome. He asks his sons, mere kids aged 7 and 10 to join him on this quest. Bill Paxton is careful enough to not make the Father seem psychotic; he’s still the same gentle soul who has utter conviction in his visions. When he brings home his first demon, a middle aged woman, Fenton is shell-shocked. Dad says when he touches her, he sees all the sins she committed. His body starts convulsing and it’s supposed to mean something. But what exactly?
Fenton keeps questioning his father, who is patient at the start. As their confrontations start getting edgier, his father starts getting harsher. He first punishes him by asking him to dig a 10 ft. wide hole for their family cellar. Even when he punishes him, it’s not out of spite, he is only doing it to help his son see the way of God.
There are many murders in this film, but we see no bloodshed onscreen because Frailty is not about violence.
It’s about the psychological violence Adam and Fenton endure.
Putting kids in danger is an old enough cinematic trope. Frailty draws its inspiration from an even more urgent minefield of feelings. You see Adam and Fenton aren’t in danger in the usual way you have seen in films. They haven’t been kidnapped, or are standing on a slippery ledge of building. These two kids are stripped away of their innocence and are driven to a path so dark, it leads straight to hell.
And, who is the person doing this? Their own father who truly believes that it’s the best for his family. As if the film doesn’t have enough surprises up its sleeve, its chronology adds a few more. The film starts off with an older Fenton (Mathew McConaughey in another stunning role) walking into the office of FBI Agent Wesley Doyle (Powers Boothe) because he has some information to share about a brutal murderer called the ‘Hand of God’. The conversation between them forms the crux of the story and unravels some previously unseen details.
There’s a twist at the end and it’s so unbelievable and brutal,
it makes the film seem like a Stephen King novel.
No wonder King himself heaped praise on Frailty upon its release. Frailty would never have been made without the character actor Bill Paxton stepping up to direct it. You see for any other director this film would be career suicide. But for Bill directing would never be his sole source of income. Though that shouldn’t take away any praise from him. He works well with actors and extracts honest performances from kids, which is a darn difficult job and I speak from experience. Unfortunately Frailty can be a dull film to look at. It resembles the work of a first-time director with most of it shot in close ups. He should have done something to light the film in a way that it highlighted the religious undertones. Nonetheless this film makes for a nice roller coaster ride by switching gears between suspense and surrealism.
To finish off this post, here’s a near Malick-ianshot from Frailty.