Frailty (2001)

How many FBI recruits sign up with dreams of crossing names off the most wanted list, only to get stuck endlessly sifting through diplomatic junk mail? There’s an incredible volume of serial killers in movies, and just as many glamorous special agents chasing after them. You’d think the FBI would do something to discourage people from imagining a badge as a ticket to jet around the country and put holes in the Hannibal Lecters of the world. You don’t see NASA tacitly endorsing the idea that any schlub who can operate construction equipment is qualified to fly into space to blow up asteroids. So why don’t the feds make an effort to disabuse people of the notion that one in five Americans is stashing bodies in the basement? Because nobody would willingly sign up to work shitty hours for terrible pay if they knew they’d most likely be spending twelve miserable hours a day in a windowless cubicle, categorizing Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s e-cards. Someone needs to make a movie about a disillusioned FBI data analyst who becomes a serial killer just to get a little job satisfaction.

"What do you mean there's no room for a topless scene? FIND A WAY."

The story: In Frailty, Matthew McConaughey manages to contain his abs long enough to inform the head of the FBI’s Dallas division that his recently deceased brother was the so-called God’s Hand killer. The imposing Agent Doyle is incredulous at first but soon sheds his doubts as McConaughey’s character, Fenton Meiks (whose name does not sound like a serial killer AT ALL), details the string of murders committed by his father, played in flashbacks by Bill Paxton, who also directed the film. It seems both religious fanaticism and ritual dismemberment run in the family.

Who wants to be daddy's special helper?

Biggest letdown: There’s nothing particularly bad about this movie; it just isn’t very interesting. From the beginning it’s natural to expect some terrible revelation awaits Agent Doyle at the end of Meiks’ tale – he is describing being a direct witness to two generations of mass murder, after all. But you never get caught up in the 70s storyline enough to ignore how straightforward things seem to be progressing in the present. When the twist comes at the end – and, to be fair, it was a bit grander than I anticipated – it’s hardly shocking and not at all disturbing.

Did God also tell you second-hand smoke was good for kids?

A big part of the blame lies in Frailty‘s framing convention. Depicted in unnecessarily layered flashbacks, the vast majority of the narrative takes place 30 years in the past. Despite the unbalanced distribution of screen time, you know the real action is between grown-up Meiks and Agent Doyle. The only way to get the audience focused on the past enough to be surprised at where things end up is if the 70s storyline is compelling. It is not.

It doesn’t help that the two kids playing young Fenton and his brother are lifeless and awkward, but even without their contribution the stakes seem pretty low. Paxton’s character presumably suffers some form of schizoaffective disorder, leading him to believe God wants him to kill demons disguised as people. As scary as that would be for a child to witness, whether he kills one person or a hundred, his actions never feel like more than a drawn-out setup for the modern-day climax.

Also, maybe Agent Doyle should spend a little more time at a desk and less time in the field. I can’t imagine it’s standard operating procedure to drive a key murder witness to a mass grave without telling anyone where you’re going.

You think I'm an idiot? I'm not just gonna believe some cockamamie story unless we drive out to the middle of nowhere in the dark first.

Why you should watch: Paxton clearly isn’t going to be the next Clint Eastwood in the director’s chair, but his performance as an unhinged yet deeply loving father stands outs. After watching him play a much more benign sort of zealot in Big Love, I was particularly struck by the similar vocabulary of both characters’ rationalizations. Whether your compulsion is plowing three women at a time while demanding their monogamy or chopping up people with an ax, a passionate believer can always find a reasonable-sounding way to explain how it’s all part of God’s plan.

Would you be more inclined to believe if I said Santa Claus told me to do it?

Memorable Moment: Not a lot to work with here. In fact, my favorite moment was memorable more because of where I thought Paxton wanted it to go than what actually came through on-screen. Psycho dad’s angelic vision commands him to wear work gloves while capturing his prey. He’s told that once he removes the gloves and lays hands on them, their evil will be revealed for all to see. He reels in his first “demon” and tosses her into the shed, while his two sons stand by to witness the kill. All along young Fenton has not been drinking the Kool-Aid and consistently tries to convince his younger brother their father isn’t playing with a full deck. Yet in this instance, as his father slowly peels off the magic gloves, young Fenton makes no immediate attempt to interfere. Despite knowing his father has gone mad, Fenton can’t resist waiting a moment to see if anything supernatural happens when he touches his captive. Or at least, that seemed like what they were going for. What I actually saw looked more like a bored kid who had to pee.

Choice quote: “It’s gotta be done a certain way. The angel was real specific.”

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3 Responses to “Frailty (2001)”

  1. […] Frailty – Both my dad and brother are killers. Me? I’m cool. […]

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    […]Frailty (2001) « 31 Flavors of Terror[…]…

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