Frailty is the antithesis of the common modern horror film. It is about mood and feeling and imagination, not about bloodshed and hyperactive violence. There is a subtle, classic feel to the proceedings in Frailty, a film about psychological damage and something that, regardless of its outlandish nature, feels authentic when you read headlines about cults and people who lose their mind and blame their God.
The film opens on present day, on an appropriately dark and stormy night, where a world-weary man named Fenton Meiks walks into the office of Federal agent Wesley Doyle (Powers Boothe) with information on the serial murders across Texas. The killer has been labeled the “God’s Hand” killer because of the clues and the information left behind. But there are no real leads. Fenton, played by Matthew McConaughey through hushed tones and unsettling fatigue, tells Doyle he knows who the God’s Hand killer is, and proceeds to tell him an extended flashback serving as the majority of the story. He tells of his childhood, when things began to take a turn for the worst, when his father was visited by God.
The flashback takes us to a small Texas town in what appears to be the late sixties or early seventies. A young Fenton and his younger brother, Adam, are played by Matt O’Leary and Jeremy Sumpter. Their father is Bill Paxton. It is the three of them, as their mother passed away before our story opens. Everything seems ideal for Fenton and Adam, and their father is a loving man and a hard worker. They enjoy each other and seem content to live in this Southern version of a Normal Rockwell painting until one night when the father comes into the boys’ room and tells him he was visited by God. God has told the dad he has been given a new job; he has been ordered to destroy demons living on earth in human form. Adam is too young to know any better and he simply listens to his father, because he Adam's only guidance. Fenton is old enough to know something is amiss.
Before long, dad gets further orders and direction, he says from God, and brings home the first “demon.” He kills the person after placing his hand on them and allegedly seeing the evil things this person has done, and axes them. The axe was given to him by God, he claims. These are the devices of the plot, the reasons we need for the story, but what separates the film from a horror/slasher film is its focus. These murders happen off screen without much bloodshed throughout because that is not the important part of the murders. It is the confusion of Fenton and the blind dedication of Adam and the way these events warp and ruin the lives of these boys. But at the same time, the screenplay plants seeds of doubt. We think the father has gone insane, and Fenton swears he has, but there are small instances where we believe he may be actually doing God’s work.
Frailty is filmed in soft tones to dilute the horror of the events. There are no scenes of intense violence because it is unnecessary. What we imagine happening is more horrifying than seeing what really happens, adding to the psychological horror. Certain aesthetic elements feel fake. For example, late in the film when older Fenton is taking Doyle to the bodies his brother buried, the car ride is clearly on a stage in a car that is not moving. This is not a complaint, but it feels like a deliberately unnatural element of the picture that keeps everything just a little off balance and that much more unsettling.
Twists are important in a film like Frailty, a murder mystery and police procedural wrapped in a dark and disturbing thriller. There are elements of horror, but this film exists in the mind more than in the sensationalism of violence. And the twists are all small, quiet twists which build on top of each other and don’t stop until we reach the final frame. Frailty is a small picture, but not one of small impact. It is the only directorial effort from Bill Paxton, and looking back now that seems like a shame because the brilliance of this picture lies all at the feet of a director with a sure hand, a focused eye, and a knowledge that what is inferred will be infinitely more thrilling than what is shown.