Reviewed by: Carole McDonnell
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Bill Paxton, Luke Askew, Matthew O'Leary, Jeremy Sumpter | Directed by: Bill Paxton | Produced by: David Kirschner, David Blocker, Corey Sienega | Written by: Brent Hanley | Distributor: Lions Gate Films
The film “Frailty” sits firmly and strongly in four basic film categories. First, it belongs to that neat subset of films which I call Southern Gothic: films like “Places in the Heart” or with actors like Billy Bob Thornton and Robert Duvall. Films that serve up real old-fashioned Southern storytelling.
It also belongs to the “black humor” category: films so dark and twisted they put “Death to Smoochy” to shame. Thirdly, it belongs to that unique American film tradition: the religious epic that masquerades as true crime. Or is that vice versa? The true film that masquerades as religious epic?
And finally it belongs to the category of films that leave the viewer wondering, “Huh? Okay, what happened?” It succeeds in all categories and—although, I could guess several plot points a mile before the bend—it is engrossing. That said, I must also add that “Frailty” is one truly uncomfortable film to sit through. Not because it’s about human frailty, family tradition and sin, but because I find anything that hints of child abuse unsettling.
In 1979, two young Texan boys Fenton and Adam are told that their dad (Bill Paxton) has a mission from God: he is to kill demons masquerading as people. He must also train up his children to fight the enemies also. So what are we dealing with? Religious psychosis? Demonic deception? God’s wishes? Or is the narrator cracked? And why is Dad telling the kids about his mission? After all, when is the right time to tell kids about the knowledge of evil and their vocation to fight it? Depending of course if one actually believes in the devil, which I do. But whatever happened to good old fashioned exorcism? Does God really want to murder people?
The central question in the film is this: What exactly do you know? The question is asked by Wesley Doyle, an FBI agent (Powers Boothe) of the narrator Meeks, played by Matthew McConaghey. And of course the question is asked of us, the audience. Here is a story of a guy with a mission from God, a guy who hears God telling him that certain folks are demons who should be killed. Most Christians believe that God speaks to His people. But the average Christian will raise an eyebrow when told God wants murder. After all, God does ask some strong stuff from His prophets. But murder? And yet: who is one man—or one society—to judge another Christian’s calling? One person’s idea of a great Christian film might be seen as irreligious by another. And as for murder, there are suicide bombers, abortion clinic bombers, the Baptist minister who created the KKK (and its flaming cross) back in 1900, the folks in the Aryan Nation, Andrea Yates, and others who feel that murder has been somehow ordained by God for a higher purpose.
We might doubt our prophet Dad because he is never seen in church. And we Christians are wary of prophets who are not in some Christian organization. But of course, John the Baptist was called to be an outsider. So perhaps we may be wrong. Other avengers and superheroes, folks like Buffy and Superman, usually have some spiritual back-up: friends who believe in them. But this family lives in utter isolation, without relatives near or far. But even that can be excused.
We spend the movie wanting the dad to be right. Or to be caught. If he is right and we’re in a horror picture, then we’ll excuse everything. If he’s wrong, then he better be destroyed soon. And so we keep hoping his son will murder him. (Sadly, movies often have us wishing for strange things which we would never wish for in life.) But what really disturbs us during the entire movie—whether the prophet is right or wrong—is that he shares his mission with his kids. This makes us feel as if we’re watching a bad case of religion as child abuse.
The movie is aiming for ambivalence. We are supposed to feel off-kilter and wobbly on our feet. But the film doesn’t give us any scenes that show God’s action in any normal way. For instance, there is no sweet church lady who gives food and cookies to the poor. That might have been a nice balance and would show God working in a less murderous way. Even the gospels don’t show Jesus alone doing God’s work. We see John the Baptist.
“Frailty” has a twisted happy ending. I smiled. But many viewers of this film won’t smile. They will be offended at the films’ take on religion. Either the hero has won in the end, or he has not. Either God is working busily among humans in a twisted murderous God-with-us kind of way. Or the devil is winning. Or, even worse, God doesn’t exist. Or if He does exist, He doesn’t care.
While this flic does have graphic violence, scenes of mental child abuse and profanity, I still must admit I liked it. It definitely leads to heavy discussion after its ending. But take caution—many Christians looking for moral entertainment will not feel favorably toward “Frailty”.
I am wondering if we saw the same movie. I have seen movies with gore and violence my whole life, but this is really the first time I found myself praying for the salvation of the writer. I understand that John the Baptist was a bit odd for his culture, but I can’t remember him ever taking an ax to someone’s torso. Is our God so weak that he would need a person to sort out the “bad guys” for Him? If the angels dare not say more than, “the Lord rebuke you,” I am to expect Man to be our Savior. Give me a break.
[Very Offensive / 3]
—Jason Bien, age 26