Saturday, May 30, 2009

DVD Review: Frailty

The children are sleeping soundly in their small Texas home when their father, a quiet loving man, comes into the room and turns on the light jarring them awake. He tells them he's just had a vision from God, and they are to exterminate demons using "magical weapons" (an ax named Otis). We are told this story through narration by one of the sons, Fenton (Matthew McConaughey in a rare role where he has his shirt on throughout), who walks into the local FBI branch and tells the director (Powers Boothe in a great supporting performance) he knows who's responsible for The God's Hands murders. As he tells the story he constantly refers to that night, that moment as a dream, and he was just waiting to wake up from the nightmare. But he never does, and what is truly horrifying in the film is created out of not blood and guts, but dialogue and a foreboding sense of events to happen, and continue to happen -- all in the name of God.

Frailty begins with credits that evoke the dreadful scores of the best Hannibal Lector movies: Manhunter and The Silence of the Lambs. We're introduced to the Meik family through flashback of those horrible days; there's Dad (Bill Paxton), Fenton (young Fenton is amazingly portrayed by Matt O' Leary), and his brother Adam (Jeremy Sumpter). They seem like a happy family: Adam sings Sunday School songs on their way home from school, Fenton is too old to join in, but he acquiesces because he loves his brother; Dad works as an auto mechanic and raises the boys himself after his wife died while giving birth to Adam. Their life together is shown early on to be an organic, loving family experience. Paxton plays the father as the wise southern authoritarian who looks upon his kids with the eyes of a loving father.

But those eyes change as the story progress, and it's an amazing piece of acting by Paxton he makes us believe this seismic shift. What were once loving eyes have turned into the crazed look of a man on a vision quest; a supernatural vocation to exterminate the people in the town who are "demons".

I dare not go further in revealing the story. There are twists, sure, but they aren't conventional twists. The biggest twist comes not as a shock, in fact to the astute viewer they'll recognize the possibilities of unreliable narration and other factors that may add to the uncertainty of the films final 20 minutes. In fact I would claim that ever since The Usual Suspects screwed us over, and M. Night Shyamalian taught us never to trust what we're watching, that most people will be second guessing the confession by the adult Fenton from the onset. What's amazing about the film is the way Paxton knows how to build dread without being giving in too much to the horror conventions that could have made this film a mess.

Paxton and his writer Brent Hanley are making a statement about religious fanatics like Jim Jones who mass kill in the name of God, but what makes the film rise above that is that Paxton is in complete control of the tired premise. He could have easily relied on cliches from the genre and hack and slash tactics to try and trump up his scenes with "scary" moments; but he wisely sidesteps the pitfalls and knows, probably because he's one of the best damn actors we have, that the father's dialogue -- the serene way he talks about the killings with his kids and how he invites them to participate with him so they can fulfill their destiny -- is far more shocking or and horrifying than slasher cliches. You wince and shudder and hide behind a pillow throughout the film, not because you're scared, but because you're unsure of what this unstable father will do to his children in the name of God. There are biblical allusions throughout the film, most notably the story of Abraham and Isaac, and again, kudos to Paxton to have the tact to not make the scenes involving the father and his children seem gratuitous or over-the-top.

Paxton has been one of my favorite actors ever since I was a little kid and watched him as Hudson in James Cameron's Aliens. He's able to do the maniacal killing machine in that film, the cocky cop like he was in Predator 2, he's able to do the soft spoken sheriff like in the criminally underrated (both the film and his performance) One False Move, he can do sleazy like he was in his movie-stealing performance as Simon in True Lies, and he can do calm authority like in the brilliant thriller A Simple Plan. He takes all of these abilities and applies them to his performance of the father in Frailty. Throughout the film the father runs the gamut of all the aforementioned emotions, and Paxon just nails it and makes you believe that the father still loves his children and is completely insane. It's an impressive balancing act and Paxton walks the high-wire with ease.

The supporting performances are grat, too. I mentioned O'Leary as young Fenton, he's amazing in showing how he doesn't believe his father, and wants to turn him in numerous times -- often calling him a killer in the process of digging holes for his father -- yet he has a hard time doing anything about it because it's his father, and he thinks he's still just dreaming all of this...just waiting for the nightmare to be over.

Frailty is a brilliant film. The film shows a comfortable childhood flipped upside down by one nightmarish night where a father tells his children they need to kill in order to fulfill God's will. It's a masterful psychological horror film that gets under your skin; a perfect example of how horror doesn't have to be torture porn or super gory, but can rely on psychology to be enough to do the job. The film reminded me a lot of The Silence of the Lambs in that regard. There really isn't any violence onscreen in Frailty, but it's the use of lighting, sound, the performances, and the way the father calmly explains how they're going to kill these people that makes the film scarier than almost anything released today that calls itself a horror film.


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