A Month of Horror on the Fringes (Day 15): Frailty (2001)

Nothing so clearly discovers a spiritual man as his treatment of an erring brother.
-Augustine

Frailty may be the best-released of the films covered in this personal series, but I believe it has never been given proper due. A horror film with God’s wrath as a theme, nostalgia as a backdrop, and kids having their innocence shattered with a series of grisly murders is already a difficult proposition. And being a horror film released two short months after the 9/11 terror attacks is an almost impossible burden. There was little reason for most audiences to reach out to Frailty’s fairly unsettling depravity; the world was already overwhelmed with it. There were a dwindling few positive reviews. Roger Ebert gave it a fairly rare 4 of 4, praising its obstinate vision (“Perhaps only a first-time director, an actor who does not depend on directing for his next job, would have had the nerve to make this movie. It is uncompromised. It follows its logic right down into hell”). But a quick pass at aggregate sites and other reviews take the film to task for two main reasons: placing children in such a brutal and unforgiving mindscape; and its third act theological reveal. The latter is precisely why I praise Frailty; the former makes this a palpable vision. Frailty takes a cold, dead look at the farthest extent – the tenuous edges – of faith and the nature of sin (and therefore, evil) in daring ways that makes everyone uncomfortable with its conclusions.

In an idyllic Texas suburb, young brothers Fenton (Matt O’Leary) and Adam Meiks (Jeremy Sumpter) live a quiet life with their father (also the film’s director, Bill Paxton, in his only directorial credit), an auto mechanic of modest but not poor means. Without warning, in the middle of the night, he wakes the two kids with an extraordinary tale: God, by way of an Angel of the Lord, came to him in a Vision. He has set the family on a path of righteous vengeance. Their task: to kill demons, hiding behind the guise of everyday people, set onto the Earth by Satan to prepare for the coming Judgment Day. The slightly older Fenton is immediately skeptical, and clearly scared of his Old Man’s twisted word choice. The younger and (possibly) more impressionable Adam believes his Father in fawning reverence. “So we’re like superheroes?” he asks Dad. There is a pause.

“That’s right. We’re a family of superheroes who are going to help save the world.”

“So, what are our superhero powers?”
“Well… we can see the demons, when other people can’t. And the Angel told me that God would be sending us three weapons to destroy them with.”

Paxton reads all such lines with a peculiar melancholy that is difficult to shake (even Moses was reluctant with his Call). But whether you are Christian or not, his words do not pass the smell test. God asking a modest family with two young boys to kill, I mean, “destroy” demons? But is God not Love? We soon see that these demons look like humans and die like humans. The three weapons are two garden gloves, a steel pipe, and an axe. Their task is to hack these demons to death.

This holy war is principally “off” for Christians for a few glaring reasons. Principally, aforementioned: God is Love, a refrain repeated in both the Hebrew (Exodus 34, Psalm 89, Daniel 9, Micah) and Christian (nearly all of 1 John, Galatians 5, the very nature of the Gospel) scriptures. The worldly appearance and violent dispatching of the demons is a direct contradiction to Paul’s letter to the Ephesians (For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms). So Biblically, it doesn’t make sense (admittedly, from a certain point of view). If you are not a believer, the above doesn’t have to apply. There is no Christian God, no Vision, and no Demons. This is sociopathic killing hiding behind religious fervor – a theme, perhaps, too easy to grasp and understand.

Involving children. This is, again, where the film loses people. Adam and Fenton are implicated at all times in his father’s actions, and witness his ‘destruction’ of these demons in the shed behind their house. Before he sends them back to Hell, the father Meiks is supposed to lay hands on them – this reveals their true sins and heinous acts, giving him the strength to chop their heads off with his axe. The boys are used as bait during the demons’ ensnaring, and are witness to this hand-laying ritual as well as the destruction of these wretched souls. It is later revealed that the young Adam can see these visions alongside his father; the older Fenton cannot. His lack of faith has blinded his powers. During one of the Angel’s appearances to the father, the Angel said that Fenton is also a demon, and the father needs to kill the son (see: Abraham and Isaac). Instead, father Meiks tries to turn his son back to the true faith by locking him in the cellar. This doesn’t turn out so well, when Fenton fakes his newfound faith, going slightly mad with hunger and hate, and turns against his Dad with terrible consequences.

All of this is technically flashback – Frailty takes place in the present day, recited by the now-adult Meiks (now Matthew McConaughey) to FBI agent Wesley Doyle (Powers Boothe). McConaughey believes his adult brother is the “God’s Hand Killer,” a serial killer whose modus operandi sounds strikingly similar to all of the above. The flashback framing device, set against the use of visions and even a hallucinogenic state or two, plants a powerful seed of unreliability in the audience. Things are left curiously unsaid by McConaughey; sometimes, he knows too much. The plot twists to a conclusion that angers everyone…

…that the events in the film are really guided by God. While the unreliable perspectives of the camera can be interpreted to be logically falsified and dismissed, there is one crucial moment near the end of the film (punctuated by a Dolly zoom, better known as the Vertigo effect) that says, without a doubt, that the Meiks were truly protected by God, all the murders were Divinely sanctioned, and the film’s gruesome events were part of a larger Holy Mission. Here we are back to a believing audience and the non-believing audience: if you call yourself Christian, this is deeply disturbing, bringing a host of questions about the character of God and the nature of faith to surface. If you do not believe, well, Frailty just told you you should. And this can be infuriating.

It’s a similar (but not identical) conclusion to those drawn in God Told Me To and Knowing – that the spiritual powers working behind the scenes in the film can no longer be dismissed. They must be addressed. But addressing these issues plainly and without emotion can be trying – especially when presented as a bait-and-switch in a horror movie. The vehicle of the message is so unsuspecting, I could empathize with those who never wanted to be asked these questions in the first place. But Frailty goes there, all the way there, whether you want it to or not.

This hurts all the more because Frailty is such a carefully crafted film – the young leads are empathetic the entire way through, and the camera placement and movement is often beautifully understated (in the scene where Dad reveals his Vision to his two sons, the camera slowly pulls back from Fenton’s point of view, although he is stationary in bed. He is drifting spiritually and emotionally apart from his family – a subtlety better left unsaid). In crucial early moments, you realize the kids are literally surrounded by churches and Bible schools and Christian iconography, hiding in plain suburban sight. In one scene, when Fenton enters the house after a day of punishment, his father and brother are surrounded by darkness in the living room, yet bathed in a single stream of “holy” light – from the television. The use of browns and reds at night surrounded by black, in contrast to cool and steady daytime scenes, are used to invoke a real Hell, now visible to the initiated. Or hiding from those who simply do not wish to see. And this truth is what Frailty really understand about cinema, which often goes unsaid: what you see is what you get. Film’s gaze is literal. If you see a dream, it happened in the mind. If you have an unreliable narrator, this is their subconscious at work. When you see a Vision from God – God has spoken.

Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.
-John 3:36

Each day all through October, I’ll be writing my two cents on 31 horror films from the dark alleys, lost highways, and unexpected corners of cinema history. Here’s to the fringes!

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