When Frailty was released, I was struck by two things: It received a 4 star rating from Roger Ebert, and it was directed by Bill Paxton. I’d always liked Paxton . Earlier in his career, he played major loudmouth jerks, such as his roles in Weird Science and Aliens. In the former, he was an immature bully named Chet who throttled his little brother Wyatt at every turn and finally received his due comeuppance from Wyatt’s creation, Lisa. In the latter, he was a macho poser marine named Hicks who ended up going off his nut when the mission began to go wrong. He was hilarious and watchable in both roles, and I think it’s due to the every-man quality of the actor himself. Underneath the skin was a guy we always felt we could love and identify with. Lesser actors would have turned us off immediately, but not Paxton. These characters undermined and thwarted the characters and the situations they were in, but we couldn’t get enough of Paxton. Heck, I even liked him in his brief role as the punk who pulls a knife on Schwarzenegger at the beginning of The Terminator (and thus meets a bad end).
Bill Paxton recently left us very tragically and unexpectedly, the day before the Oscars. They didn’t even have time to include him in the “In Memoriam” segment, but he was the one we were all thinking of as we remembered all the legends and icons we lost over the past year. Paxton was a good actor. He was solid. There was a graciousness and humility about him, almost like seeing your helpful next-door neighbor up on screen. I liked him in everything. In fact, I liked every movie he was in, and I don’t know if this is because he made good choices or if by his presence he raised the quality of the film. Regardless, a long overdue viewing of Frailty, streaming on Netflix, felt like a suitable way to pay homage to Bill Paxton.
Paxton plays the widowed father of two young boys, Fenton and Adam Meiks. He’s a strong father, a wise and encouraging leader, instilling good qualities of manhood in his boys. He’s a church-going man with dependable values, working a steady job at an auto shop. He puts the boys to bed at a decent hour every night, tells them he loves them. One evening, he has an vision of an angel from God, who gives him a mission: He and the boys are commanded to destroy demons who are masquerading as humans among them. God will give him a list of names when the time is right. Dad is excited and wakes his boys to tell them of the vision. Adam, the younger brother (played by Jeremy Sumpter, who would soon after star in P.J. Hogan’s excellent adaptation of Peter Pan), believes in the vision because he trusts his father. Fenton (Matt O’Leary) is not so sure. Later, Dad has another vision while working underneath a car engine and apparently is given the first list of names and the tools he is to use to do the job. We don’t hear what the angel says, but Meiks does and buys into the vision wholesale. By the way, while Frailty is a very low-budget film, Paxton includes one of the film’s few uses of CGI effects in this scene, and while it may be cheap, it is nevertheless terrifying, due in part to the zealousness it ignites in Paxton’s character, and it does indeed seem to be a fearsome angel of God, wielding a sword and a stern but righteous countenance. Meiks comes home to tell his children what they are to do. Adam is very willing and claims to believe the vision. Fenton does not, but he’s forced to go along. They kidnap the “demons”–ordinary, local men and women–and bind them and gag them. Meiks lays his hands on them and claims to see their sins, then he pronounces judgment on them and kills them with an ax.
This is all told through narrated flashbacks. The framing takes place in present day, 20+ years later. There has been a new string of murders in the same area in Texas, called the “God’s Hand” murders. The adult Fenton (Matthew McConaughey) has arrived at the local FBI office on a dark, stormy night to tell the agent in charge of the investigation, Doyle (Powers Boothe), that the killer is his brother, Adam. Then he lays out his life story–his father’s fanaticism that led to his brother’s own madness, and how his own refusal to believe would eventually divide the family. Fenton’s testimony ultimately leads to a very well-executed twist that surprises us in part because the movie was already effectively disturbing without it. The twist adds layers to a horror film of chilling depth, and McConaughey’s performance, at first underwhelming because so much of the focus is on the younger characters, evolves into perhaps the greatest of the film and shows why he is now one of the great actors working today.
Bill Paxton was such a kind man, with such a winning smile and gracious personality, that it’s hard to believe he could direct such a dark, even dangerous movie. At no point does Frailty cast suspicion on the reality of its characters’ visions (both the father and Adam’s). They indeed seem to be having very real, supernatural visions, and late in the film it’s revealed that the murders they commit may be justified from a certain perspective. That is, if we buy the visions themselves. Spoilers follow, so beware. In the film’s final act, we see the sins the “demons” have committed, the sins Meiks saw when he laid his hands on them, heinous, evil acts including murder and pedophilia. Did these really happen, or are they merely Meiks’ deranged mind’s attempt to justify what he’s doing? If they really happened, does he have the right to wreak this citizen justice? Isn’t this a matter for the cops, or does God’s will supersede their authority? It’s easy to say, “God would never command a believer to kill other people, regardless of their sins.” We may also say, “How could Meiks really know they’d done these things? Where’s the evidence?” But then how many of us, when we see a news story online of an accused murderer, child rapist, pedophile, etc., log on and comment something like, “Give him the chair and send him straight to hell!” “Just let me at him. I’ll make sure he pays for what he did.” Then we try to outdo each other on the gory details of what we’d like to do to the accused. There has been no trial, the evidence hasn’t been fully analyzed, the facts are not all in yet, but we claim in our self-righteousness to be doing God’s work by contributing to the torches and pitchforks-conviction of the accused. This does nothing to contribute to real and proper justice and law and order. When we add our voices to the maelstrom, all we’ve done is satisfy a thirst for vengeance against somebody who personally did us no wrong. In so doing, we seem to think we’re speaking for God. When I see such comments, I’m no longer thinking of the accused or the crime he committed–I’m thinking of your sick, warped mind.
Even after the visions begin, Meiks seems be a good, loving father (as we social media vengeance warriors would all claim to be good, God-fearing ‘Muricans), seems to be wanting what’s best for his sons, which is that they would now join him in his divine mission. He goes through all the right motions of the modern father wanting to pass the mantle along to the next generation, their inheritance. One day, he has Fenton dig a large hole in their backyard, which will eventually be the basement to their shed where they will “destroy the demons.” The chore is meant to build character, to teach Fenton that it’s important to obey and respect his father. When Fenton is done, his hands blistered and throbbing, Meiks feeds him a hearty, home-cooked meal, tells him how proud he is of him, and pities him, telling him he wished Fenton had worn gloves, that he hadn’t meant for Fenton to hurt himself. It’s a sweet, tender, fatherly moment. In fact, Meiks is the ideal father, but it’s his ideals that are the problem, which should cause any God-fearing viewer to reflect on which god he or she might actually be listening to.