Frailty (2002)Rated R for violence and some language.
Starring Bill Paxton, Matthew McConaughey, Powers Boothe, Matthew O'Leary, Jeremy Sumpter.
LVJeff's Rating: 4/10
Photo ©Lions Gate Films. All rights reserved.
Here's one thing I've learned in this life so far: messing around with other people's religious beliefs is a bad idea. Each person has definite ideas about God and these ideas are extremely personal. Belief (or non-belief) in God requires conviction and faith; discussion of one's beliefs should be treated seriously, and even the slightest doubts raised about them can elicit strong emotions. It's the last subject that should be treated disrespectfully by using it as a convenient plot device for a movie's supposedly shocking ending. Alas, Frailty is guilty of using it in exactly that way.
The movie starts out with an enticing premise -- the story of a serial killer whose motivation is a command from God. Fenton Meiks (Matthew McConaughey) seeks out FBI Agent Wesley Doyle (Powers Boothe) at his office on a stormy night in Texas to tell him that he knows who is behind the recent string of murders by a being who calls himself "God's Hand." After naming his brother, Adam Meiks, as the culprit, Fenton proceeds to tell Agent Doyle about his peculiar past. As shown in flashback, Fenton's father (Bill Paxton, both in front of and behind the camera for this film), a kind and well-meaning widower and mechanic, claimed to have received messages from God and His angels. Their orders: Mr. Meiks and his family are to seek out demons that walk the earth and destroy them. The problem was, when Dad got his list of demons, it came in the form of the names of regular people.
Young Adam (Jeremy Sumpter) was quite excited about shouldering this responsibility, but young Fenton (Matthew O'Leary) asked the questions that would naturally arise. Had his father gone mad? It would certainly seem so, as Dad had begun to bring home victims, bound and gagged, in the night. The two boys watched as he touched the victim's skin with his hand, making the truth about the victim's demon status apparent only to him. Terrified, he hacked the victim to death with an axe that was sent to him from God himself. Young Adam claimed he could see what his father saw when he touched a "demon," but all Fenton had seen was murder, right before his eyes.
Young Fenton's anxieties are the audience's anxieties, namely, how can his father really feel he is doing the right thing? The idea that a man would wander freely to different locations to knock certain people unconscious with a lead pipe for the purpose of chopping them up later is rather disturbing, no matter what the reasons are, but Dad makes a convincing case for himself. He truly believes he is doing God's work -- after touching his hand to one of the victims, he cries to his kids, "I can see his sins! He's a killer of little babies! Babies!" Even if this was true, would God approve of this form of justice? Ask many people with strong faiths about this and you will get many different answers, but I can guarantee you that each person's answer will be emphatic and certain.
If the movie had left it alone at that, the audience would have been given a movie that asked the right questions about people who kill in the name of God, offered insights in to their motivations, and also gave a shattering portrayal of the pressure children face to live up to the beliefs of their parents and/or community. But Frailty isn't about such thoughtfulness; it's about creepy atmosphere and cheap shock endings. Thus, instead of just asking the questions, it decides to also answer them with one crucial scene.
Would God justify vigilante murder? Let me put it this way: if His own answer is "no," then He ought to sue Bill Paxton for defamation of character. At the very least, He should file a complaint about the poor representation of His wisdom in policy-setting. Honestly, isn't there a more efficient way to deal with demons than to whack them with a pipe, drag them home, and then chop them up into itty-bitty pieces with an axe? I thought we were told that the Lord works in mysterious ways, not implausible ways.
If the motivations that the movie assigns to God seem offensive, then the message offered by the end of the movie should seem even more so -- that people who murder in the name of God really are heroic, provided they are only killing bad people. Oh yeah, and that it's OK to call such people "demons." What kind of crackpot message is that?
And for those viewers who would defend the movie by claiming that Paxton's character is not unlike those people in real life who can't tell their delusions apart from reality, I again refer you to crucial scene near the end of the movie. You'll know the one -- it's the only one that contains a sequence featuring bright red blood against a white background. A confession is made that makes it quite clear that the movie and its logic give legitimacy to the visions we all thought could have been merely delusions.
Most moviegoers would have little problem with the use of lifestyles, personality quirks, psychological problems, the workplace, capatalism, politics, or war as the impetus for a movie plot. Questions and statements alike can be raised about them, promoting the cause for intelligent discussion. However, the eyes of the audience narrow when religion is involved. It's fair to raise questions about the subject, but the danger comes from making statements, because religion plays a personal role in the beliefs and everyday lives of many. A filmmaker might be able to get away with presenting God as a good-willed George Burns, or even as a playful Alanis Morissette -- these are rather harmless and whimsical portrayals. But if a filmmaker is suggesting that God murders through the hands of Bill Paxton, I think more than a few of the faithful are bound to get offended.
©Jeffrey Chen, Apr. 14, 2002