Frailty (2001), or The Terrible Darkness Of Being (UPDATED!)

2 10 2009

There is something overtly menacing about Matthew McConaughey’s face. It’s not like he’s ugly, as so many women will attest, but he has something behind those unassuming, half-closed eyes of his that really freaks me out. I think there’s a beast, wild and terrible, waiting to erupt from the man at any moment. I don’t think he’s a danger to anyone around him yet, but sometimes I look at him and I get the strange sensation that he just wants to beat my ass. Today’s film, Frailty, features a directorial debut from Bill Paxton, chills and thrills abound, and a good score composed by Brian Tyler. And it features Matthew McConaughey turning the Dude-o-meter way down and turning the unflinching, terrifying psycho-meter way, way up. I wnjoyed it, partly because of his role played well against type.

It’s a whodunit that begins with a confession. Of a sort. In Dallas, a man named Fenton walks into the office of the Dallas division of the FBI and tells a detective that he knows the identity of a particularly twisted serial killer known as “God’s Hand”. When the police ask him the details, Fenton tells them that his brother is the killer and explains his claim with a story. What follows is the story of his childhood with his brother Adam and his deranged father. When Fenton was a boy, his father came to him and his brother claiming to have been charged by God to rid the world of demons, normal-looking people who have been infiltrated by agents of the Devil. Fenton is skeptical of this, but his brother Adam truly believes him, claiming to see the demons as well. When his father starts killing people based on his wild claims of demonic possession, Fenton is appalled and cannot cope with it. Adam, however, seems doomed to follow in the steps of his father, obsessed with doing God’s work. And so the “God’s Hand” killer was born from the madness of the father passed to the son. Will the FBI believe this eerie story? Will they find any evidence to corroborate this? Is Fenton even telling the whole truth?

Frailty is a compelling thriller about perceived morality and family loyalty. It requires a certain amount of cognitive dissonance from the audience, which is a lot better than most thrillers. I would call it a win for me, but this is a win-win already because it combines my enthusiasm of dark psychological thrillers with my love of shedding light on religious fanaticism.

Fenton’s family is crazy for the Lord, so much so that they’ll do anything to please Him, including just stone-cold murdering folks. This, of course, creates a family dynamic that is fucked beyond measure, because Dad wants his capable sons involved in his new venture for God. What intrigues me is the criteria for, um, demonhood. It has something to do with the people’s actions in real life that adds a melancholy and disturbing dimension to the whole tale. There are a lot of secrets here, and a lot of possible SPOILERS, so I’ll just say that nothing is as it seems.

With Frailty, Bill Paxton creates a knotted bramble of a debut feature. You’ll be surprised it holds together so well, with all the mystery surrounding the characters and their questionable behavior. But Paxton has a real eye, as I’m sure you’ll see in a few of these scenes, and I know never to underestimate him again. The insane majesty of the scene where Fenton’s father discovers the tools of God’s work, adult Fenton’s disturbed aura in the opening dialog, and the horrific basement-digging scene are all winners in my book, and they have the added distinction of being among his first. After all the years in front of the camera, I’m glad Paxton found the desire to create and used that experience to make a strong, interesting film.

Matthew McConaughey shines for the first time in nearly a decade as Fenton. His performance couldn’t have been pulled off by someone else, and how many times are you going to get to see that? Normally, the first thing I think of when I see Matthew McConaughey on-screen is a pee-break from the movie, no pausing. But as Fenton, MM touches the gilded hand of fine acting and caresses its palm. There’s something unmistakably damaged about him, and I’m pretty shocked that it didn’t land him an award of some sort. It’s incredibly good for him, whatever that says about the role, definitely a highlight of the movie. Bill Paxton does his same old song and dance. For a man who’s been acting so long, it just isn’t working between him and I (the audience). I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt, just because he was multi-tasking while acting, but it’s nothing as brilliant as Twister. And a quick show of recognition to Powers Boothe, who plays the FBI agent who listens to Fenton’s entire story. His role is somewhat subdued but completely necessary, and I like the turn of his character by the end. Great stuff!

But something I neglected to mention the first time I did this review were the child actors who play the younger versions of the brothers. I can’t believe this, but when frequent reader Jenni pointed it out to me, I felt compelled to update the review. I CANNOT BELIEVE I didn’t say anything about them. Oops! Well, Fenton is played by little Matt O’Leary to sensational ends. He endures a lot as a young actor, and some scenes, like when he’s locked in a basement for refusing to take part in his father’s mad plan, are simply traumatic. He is the voice of reason, and he lends the character a realistic mixture of terror and family fealty that keeps the audience rooting for him. Young Adam is played by Jeremy Sumpter, AKA Peter Pan. He brings a wide-eyed fervor to Adam that I don’t think many other young actors could have mustered. Sometimes he drops into the pitfall of campiness (during the last murder of the flashback, he might has well have just danced the Time Warp), but its still very much appreciated for the character, who is a little too crazy for his own good. The kids are pretty good, and it’s amazing that I glossed over them when they’re in like 80% of the movie! My apologies!

Frailty doesn’t suffer from much, even from the fact that it is a psychological thriller, and most people won’t even want to deal with it after the first viewing. You’ll get a lot of good mental exercise out of this, and I for one was close to pulling a sheet of paper out to make a map of all the characters in the film (!!!). Bottom line, ladies (or gentlemen,either way), come for the McConaughey debonair, stay for an interesting plot and a few twists that you might not see coming. I liked it; not overtly so, not cloyingly so. But it was good. I give Frailty 7 1/2 on-edge, possibly mental McConaugheys out of 10. “All right all right all right…”

Tomorrow’s PSA is Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film For Theaters! Hope to see ya there!