The beginning of director Bill Paxton’s “Frailty” (2001), once, that is, you get past the first of the movie’s bookend scenes in which, in the present, Fenton Meiks (Matthew McConaughey) explains that his younger brother Adam is the so-called God’s Hand killer to an FBI agent (Powers Boothe), is a swift evocation of domestic bliss. It’s a flashback to Fenton and Adam’s childhood with their Dad (Paxton also), who simply goes by said moniker – Dad. The home’s production design feels spot on, radiating warmth in its lived-in, modest trappings. That warmth is precisely what makes the subsequent scene so jarring – that is, Dad entering his sons’ bedroom in the middle of the night and explaining that he was just visited by an angel telling him that his role on Earth is now to destroy demons disguised as human beings.
Paxton’s demeanor in this moment hardly changes. “The angel says…” he keeps saying in such an earnest tone that it sounds no different than any Dad explaining household chores. And Paxton incredibly maintains this air throughout, never breaking, refusing to resort to serial killer oddities or histrionics. Even when his character is lifting an axe to bring down on some trembling, gagged human being, Paxton emits of grief and guilelessness. He is, simply, a family man who has received a sign and is, like a good shepherd, committed to now shepherding his kids along on this new mission.
Adam (Jeremy Sumpter), younger and more impressionable, is easily seduced by the power his father commands simply from being his father. Fenton (Matt O’Leary), on the other hand, older, able to think for himself, is fearful, reluctant and eventually defiant. McConaughey provides voiceover throughout these passages, and while it is not intrusive, per se, it is also not entirely necessary given that O’Leary’s performance virtually on its own, an assortment of facial expressions that communicates his different levels of thought, gets across what McConaughey is telling us. This was Paxton’s first feature film as director and you wonder if, with more experience, he might have jettisoned the monologue. (Or maybe had to keep it because it was McConaughey and McConaughey’s voice sells tickets.) No matter.
As director, Paxton never entirely tips the scales toward This Is Happening or This Is Not Happening. In the moments of Dad’s visions, Paxton lets us see what Dad sees without visually overplaying the moment but never concedes on whether what Dad sees is really there or a product of his imagination. And in the moments before the dispatching of the demons, when Dad puts his hands to his to-be victims’ heads and holds on, purportedly so he can see their sins, the camera shakes violently, perhaps because seeing these sins makes Dad shake. Ah, but look closely at a later killing, with the camera behind Dad and victim, where the camera does not shake, and you almost come away thinking that nothing is happening, that Dad is play-acting or play-acting without necessarily realizing that he is play-acting.
“Frailty” also refuses, for the most part, until later, when the film kind of comes apart, which we will get to momentarily, to give any kind of deep dive into these supposed demons as humans, who they are, where they come from, who might miss them. It adds to the idea of Dad’s acceptance of the mission. Who they are is irrelevant because God is telling Dad who they really are and Dad is merely tasked with abiding by his beliefs.
The ambiguity of these flashback scenes, however, is eventually compromised by the bookended tale of older Fenton and the FBI agent. Here is where everything falls into place, where you realize all sorts of little moments preceding it were merely planted seeds waiting to sprout, a concession to the more conventional aspects of the tale, an abandonment of its exploration of the fraut nature of belief. It’s not uninteresting to make us wonder if “hey, what if all this really is real”, though it is always much less interesting to make us think “wait, all this really is real?” And the more forceful “Frailty” became in its presentation of the latter, the less I was inclined to be believe that any of it was true.