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FRAILTY

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Bill Paxton, Matthew McConaughey, Powers Boothe, Matt O’Leary, Jeremy Sumpter, Luke Askew
Director:  Bill Paxton
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.78:1
Studio:  Lions Gate
Features:  See Review
Length:  99 Minutes
Release Date:  September 17, 2002

“This is our job now, son.  We’ve got to do this.”

Film ****

Quite simply, Frailty is the best psychological thriller since Silence of the Lambs.  It unnerves us not with actions, but ideas.  Ideas that are open to interpretation, and force us to bring something to the table.  It’s a film that involves us personally in a situation we’d rather not be involved in at all.

It marks the directorial debut of Bill Paxton, who also stars as “Dad”.  Paxton has been a likeable movie appearance for a couple of decades now, but he really gets the chance to prove his acting mettle in this picture. 

We learn his story in flashback form from his grown son (McConaughey), who has come to the office of an FBI agent (Boothe) to reveal the identity of their long-hunted “God’s Hand” killer.  There is a story to tell, and as the men make their way through a rainstorm to an unholy destination, the tale comes to life.

It’s the story of two young boys, Fenton (O’Leary) and Adam Meiks (Sumpter), who live a quiet and normal life with their widowed father (Paxton) somewhere in Texas.  But one night, their calm existence is shattered, when their frantic father bursts into their room with shocking news.  He’s had a vision of the end of the world and the demons who are currently amongst them.  He’s been given an assignment by an angel to destroy those demons, and his sons will have to help.

Is the vision real, or is the father becoming unhinged?  It would be the easiest thing in the world to suppose the latter, but Frailty is not a movie that lets us off that quickly.  By the time the picture reaches its conclusions, we are drawing our own.  In the meantime, we experience an unwholesome terror through the eyes of young Fenton, who can’t shake the suspicion that his father isn’t well, and that when he’s “dispatching demons”, he’s actually committing one murder after another.

Adam, the younger, seems in tune with his father, and claims he too can see the demons his father reveals.  Fenton cannot.  He doesn’t believe in God, or at least a God who would command something this terrible.  As his father’s deeds sicken him more and more, it becomes apparent that there will be an ultimate showdown between father and son…and whose side is God actually on, if any?

This film is everything that is Southern gothic, thanks to the terrific script by Brent Hanley and the moody photography by Bill Butler.  But it’s also a film that comes down to two key ingredients:  the performances, which are startlingly good one after another (especially young Matt O’Leary, whose emotional involvement carries the picture through its horrors), and the direction.  Paxton shows no first-time jitters here, shooting the film in a mere 37 days, getting the most out of his cast from young newcomers to seasoned pros alike, and treating the story with all the respect and integrity it deserves.  There is no cop-out here, nor any shying away from the difficult questions.  It could have been just another horror film, but instead, it’s a powerful and moving experience that delivers more than just fright.

Frailty is a modern masterpiece of terror, one with heart, brains, and an uncanny ability to steer clear of vacuous fodder and delve right into the guts of a heartbreaking and frightening story made all the more potent by being told largely through the eyes of a child.

Video ***

This is a quality anamorphic offering from Lions Gate that deals with troublesome material…mainly, the fact that much of the film offers very little light.  There is some softness from time to time, but ultimately, there is enough clarity even in darkness to understand what you’re seeing when Paxton wants you to, or to keep you shrouded in doubt when necessary.  Brighter scenes come across with good coloring, and only a very light smattering of grain now and then…hardly noticeable unless you’re really looking for it.  I can certainly appreciate what a difficult job this transfer must have been, and overall, the results are quite satisfying.

Audio ****

This is a movie that creates atmosphere not only with story and character, but with sound.  Though arguably a simply told tale, the 5.1 soundtrack doesn’t settle into the groove of a typically dialogue oriented film.  There is dynamic range and sequences that open up all speakers for maximum discomfort.  Don’t be ashamed if you look over your shoulder at least once…I admit, I did.  The score by Brian Tyler is effective and opened across all stages.  An extremely effective listening experience!

Features ****

Frailty is a well packaged disc, starting off with three good commentary tracks.  Bill Paxton offers his thoughts on one track with the kind of amiability you’d expect from him.  He offers thoughts about the story, the actors, the locations, and of course, being a first time director.  It’s an interesting and informative listen.  For more on the guts of the story and the “theology” involved, you can tune into writer Brent Hanley’s track, or for more technical information, the producers’ commentary will fit the bill.

There are also two decent featurettes…one is a straightforward “making-of” piece with cast and crew interviews, and the other is the “Anatomy of a Scene” Sundance Channel special.  There is an 8 minute clip of good deleted scenes with or without Paxton’s commentary.  The scenes were mostly cut for time, but they are all quite interesting…Paxton actually cut some of his own terrific material, proving his lack of ego.  Rounding out are a trailer and a photo gallery.

Summary:

Frailty proves that a movie need not be graphic to make you squirm.  Guided by Bill Paxton’s strong directorial effort, this is a picture that makes you recoil from ideas instead of actions.  As such, it will stay in your head long after the credits role.  Highly recommended.