If Hal Hartley had not already appropriated the name, Bill Paxton's directorial debut might more aptly have been titled Trust. There is nothing frail about the intractable men who inhabit Frailty, a psychological thriller about the fealty that binds and blinds a son to his demented father. "We're God's hands," Dad (Paxton) proclaims to his two young boys, convinced, by the voice of an angel, that they have been summoned into service not to play the piano but to swing an ax. Following divine instruction, he hacks to death the demons who disguise themselves as ordinary local people. He conscripts his sons into a brutal crusade against imaginary evil.
Frailty begins on a dark and stormy night, when a man who calls himself Fenton Meiks (McConaughey) visits the FBI office in Dallas. "I know who the God's Hand killer is," he tells Wesley Doyle (Boothe), a stolid, skeptical agent in charge of solving a particularly sordid series of homicides. The killer, claims Meiks, is his own brother, carrying on the sacred mission of ridding the world of demons that was begun by their demented father. Frailty then proceeds as an extended flashback, to the summer of 1979, to a loving, harmonious family that literally lives in a rose garden, the municipal arboretum of Thurman, Texas. Except for a missing mother, who died giving birth to her younger son, Adam, it could be a scene out of Father Knows Best. But when this father begins having visions, his elder son begins to doubt him. "Maybe you're not right in the head," suggests Fenton when Dad reports what God has planned for them.
Though the film periodically returns to the present tense, to the frame in which the grown-up Meiks tells his tale to Agent Doyle (whose own mother, not entirely incidentally, has been murdered), the burden of the story is carried by Matt O'Leary and Jeremy Sumpter, playing young Fenton and Adam Meiks, respectively. To the common ordeal of growing up is added the handicap of having to deal with a devoted father who has suddenly morphed into a religious maniac. To the ordinary tensions of sibling rivalry is added conflict over whether to embrace or reject their father's bizarre visions. On the verge of puberty, Fenton takes an independent stand. "It's all a big lie," he tells his younger brother, but Adam, spurning Fenton's line that this angel business is as unreal as Santa Claus, remains loyal to the man who brought them into the world. Adam not only refuses to run away with Fenton; he even helps their father subdue his prodigal older son.
From its garden setting to its theme of annunciation, shadows of the Bible fall across the somber sets of Frailty, which, though shot in southern California, unfolds amid the isolated spaces of east Texas. Like the patriarchal Abraham who is commanded to sacrifice his beloved Isaac, the eldest Meiks is told that his own son is on the list of demons that must be destroyed. He labors mightily in order to break the boy's will, to transform him from a skeptic into a willing accomplice in the project of exterminating demons. But Fenton is as obstinate as his old man, and he endures much torment before he is subdued. To Dad's contention that God has ordered him to abduct and assassinate innocent strangers, the youngster defies both paternity and divinity. "There is no God," he declares.
The local sheriff refuses to believe young Fenton's account of how his father has become an ax-murderer. Later, FBI Agent Doyle also doubts the story that he hears. If a viewer has trouble suspending disbelief over this stark excursion into Gothic Americana, some twists in the plot both reward and abuse our trust. Brent Hanley's brooding screenplay is less of an inquest into frailty as into zealous intolerance of human imperfections. If the Meiks shall inherit the earth, it means a victory for the Taliban or, closer to home, for John Brown, Jim Jones, and other violent fanatics who are absolutely convinced that God is directing them, when at most He merely did the casting.
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"Stark account of trusting God and Dad"
Dir. Bill Paxton; writ. Brent Hanley; feat. Bill Paxton, Matthew McConaughey, Powers Boothe, Matt O'Leary, Luke Askew, Jeremy Sumpter (R)