Frailty

Rating:

Faith As Horror

Cast: Bill Paxton, Matthew McConaughey, Powers Boothe, Matthew O’Leary

Director: Bill Paxton

I really like a good thriller (even a mediocre thriller will do in a pinch). The traditional thriller offers us clues, suspense, some red herrings, and hopefully an ending with some surprises. Films billed as horror seem to have devolved into slasher movies with lots of gratuitous violence and some nubile flesh. This is an unfortunate development, as classic films such as “Psycho” rightfully belong in the horror genre, yet the label seems to now diminish them. “Frailty” has all the feel of a great horror movie, a really scary movie, but is in no way some mindless slasher flick. It manages to combine the best of horror with the best of thriller to produce a very unique film. All the traditional thriller elements are present, and as an extra bonus, we are treated to an overlay of scary, creepy tone that heightens the suspense and intensifies the themes.

The tone is set immediately, with the opening credits being more sinister than many whole movies. The combined use of the shadowy blurring of crime scene images with the heavy introduction of score, and even the way the words float around the screen make for the single most effective set of opening credits I have ever seen.

The movie opens with Fenton Meeks (Matthew McConaughey) showing up in the office of FBI Agent Wesley Doyle (Powers Boothe), apparently to provide crucial information on a series of murders, the God’s Hand murders, that Doyle is investigating. Fenton states straight out that he knows who the killer is and is more that willing to tell Agent Doyle. The killer, it seems, is Meeks’ own brother, Adam, who has now taken his own life. Fenton has stolen an ambulance, as well as his brother’s body, and given him the burial he was promised years earlier. Doyle confirms Fenton’s story with a single phone call to the local precinct in question, and is even told that charges won’t be pressed as long as the ambulance is returned. Fenton offers a rare smile and comments on the benefits of living in a small town.

Doyle still has plenty of questions, which Fenton is happy to answer. At this point we begin to flash back to 1979, where an early adolescent Fenton lives with Adam and their father, their mother having died in childbirth. They live a very regular life, with Dad going to work, kids to school, lots of father/son talk time, the whole works. A regular life in a regular house behind the rose garden of a regular town. Dad works hard and loves his sons, although Fenton has, by necessity, picked up much of the rearing of Adam.

So far, “Frailty” appears to be one of those movies that gives you the end at the beginning and leaves the story in the telling. Appearances are so very deceiving. It would have taken about an hour in a typical thriller to get this much information, where here it takes about ten minutes (more or less). What makes this amazing is that we don’t feel rushed. It doesn’t feel like too much, too soon, rather the opposite. It’s a tantalizing glimpse into the world of Fenton Meeks, then and now, and gives us a clue to the levels of complexity this story will unravel.

In 1979, young Fenton’s world is abruptly altered when his heretofore regular guy dad (who is interestingly never given a first name) begins to have powerful and startling visions. These he shares with his sons, but it is all to be their secret. The present day adult Fenton recounts all this to Doyle with disarming calm in his attempt to convince the FBI man that his story is true.

I would love to tell you more of the story, really. But it would be terribly mean and unfair. The twists and turns this story takes are remarkable both in their complexity, as well as in their coherence. There are very few places where the plot dictates action unsuited to the characters as they have been developed. I do want to try and impart to you the strength of the performances and the fascinating (and unusual) tone of this movie.

Matthew McConaughey as Fenton Meeks (what a great name) is quiet, straightforward, honest and forthright. At the same time, he’s evasive, emotionally stilted, manipulative, edgy and nearly mechanical in his recitation of the alarming details of his life. Fenton is a unique man and McConaughey plays him with a stylish civility belied only by his life story, and an indefinable yet palpable sense of overall “wrongness” that gives the character great edge and keeps us raptly attentive.

Powers Boothe’s Agent Doyle generally appears as a question asking device to draw out the Meeks family saga. As a character, he is not particularly well developed, but Boothe manages to lend him substance. He’s a suitably clean cut, straight laced foil for the scruffy looking Fenton, and he exudes just the right amount of testosterone to make some of his less cautious decisions play well. His character does flesh out as the movie goes along, but never to the degree of the Meeks family.

Bill Paxton both directed “Frailty” and plays “Dad”. His character is tremendously complex, and Paxton does a masterful job overlaying a regular guy dad onto something significantly more unusual. We also get a sense of a guy caught in a situation that he feels is neither of his making nor his choice, but one he has to live with nonetheless. Even though Dad has visions, he’s still Dad, and Paxton allows him to live in these incompatible worlds, and allows us to see where it leads.

The other crucial performance in the film is that of Matthew O’Leary as young Fenton. I have no idea how old this kid is, but the character appears to be around twelve or so. At the edge of adolescence, he is a good kid who loves his family, is beginning to notice pretty girls, and is generally happy with how his life is going. When things begin to change, he simply cannot fathom that this is actually happening, and keeps deluding himself that it’s all over. Young Fenton makes critical decisions, takes serious actions, and is tremendously stubborn and determined. His motivations appear crystal clear for much of the movie, only becoming murky much later on. Young Fenton is played by O’Leary with a fierceness and youthful vulnerability, and with considerable range and skill for such a young actor.

The entire movie is beautifully creepy in tone. Each performance, each set and the entire score seem to be played in a minor key. There is lots of gothic imagery, with wrought iron gates, statuary, and lots of rainy, foggy exterior scenes. There are also powerfully dark religious themes with just enough supernatural elements to add the twists and turns that make a great thriller. The score and tone are full out horror, but the story is a patient, well rendered thriller.

The violence, although plentiful, is not visually graphic. We may know exactly what happens, but we don’t see it all in full gore. The viewer’s imagination is always better at filling in these details, and “Frailty” makes good use of all the viewer can bring to a film.

The cinematography is glorious, adding greatly to both the haunted gothic feel and the supernatural themes. One beautiful shot of a ray of sunlight through a decrepit barn comes to mind as a particularly vivid example of just how effective visual imagery alone can be when done well.

“Frailty” has an ending that is the stuff of classic horror/thriller. Unpredictable to the last scene, with excellent closure. This is a very high quality film for anyone with an affinity for the genre (either one, actually). The religious themes may not be for everyone, but you shouldn’t let them dissuade you from giving the movie a chance. They really aren’t used to draw any pat religious conclusions, but more to introduce an element of the unknown and increase the level of suspense. That said, if you have strong feelings about how religion should be portrayed in movies, this might not be a great choice for you.

Overall, the performances are absolutely solid, with McConaughey as a stand out. The pace and tone keep us right in the moment throughout the film and the score is deliberately and effectively omnipresent. Bill Paxton deserves kudos for an amazing directorial debut. The storyline is complex, but tight as a drum. A definite home run!

A note about the DVD extras. As usual, I didn’t get a chance to listen to any of the commentary, but did watch the special feature on the making of the film. It is fun to see, and as always, I’m amazed at the amount of talent, time, energy, and sheer devotion that goes into making a film. I would recommend, however, saving this feature perhaps for the next day. Seeing all the on-set hijinx takes some of the edge off the general experience if watched immediately following the film. I find it more fun to savor the film before going behind the scenes.

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