***½/**** Image A- Sound A Extras B+
starring Bill Paxton, Matthew McConaughey, Powers Boothe, Matthew O'Leary
screenplay by Brent Hanley
directed by Bill Paxton
by Walter Chaw Dad (Bill Paxton) gets lists of demons from God. He has also provided Dad with three weapons with which to dispatch said demons: a pair of work gloves, a length of pipe, and an axe named "Otis." Oldest boy Fenton (Matthew O'Leary) and his little brother Adam (Jeremy Sumpter) are left to decide whether Dad is indeed touched by divine hand or just another redneck serial killer in a white van.
Perhaps the very definition of a guilty pleasure, Paxton's directorial debut Frailty owes at least a passing fancy to the Garth Ennis-penned comic "Preacher" in its assignation of the Holy Ghost to something so mundane as a small-town axe murderer. It's southern at its most gothic, a familial dysfunction piece set in Texas, wrapped in a rightwing nut-job crime thriller that plays like Mortal Thoughts in its mood and structure and Eye of God in its somewhat detached humanism and ability to wring suspense from Biblical Abraham's trial. It falls somewhere between those two films in terms of quality as well.
Frailty's lingering strength lies in its ludicrous dedication to its preposterous subject--a dedication that plays as particularly appropriate in that fundamentalist loonies using the Bible as a launching point for homicidal rampages display the same kind of devotion. (I've always thought that a warning label should be placed on the Good Book: more devastation has resulted from bad interpretations of the text therein than the entire angst-ridden catalogues of a thousand Marilyn Mansons.) Frailty is the logical extension of a recent cycle of films that treat religious ecstasy with Sunday school platitudes and doe-eyed youngsters (Taliesin Jones, Rumor of Angels): it allows that religious visions are not just flashes of light carrying messages of hope, but often at the root of atrocity. The film is also laudably courageous in its treatment of child abuse in the name of pious conviction and the possibility that modern prophets will be treated with suspicion and accused of madness.
Told mostly in flashback, Frailty suffers from travel-worn clichés, like the kind of rain-streaked confession framing story that never really works, wooden performances by professional wooden actors Matthew McConaughey, Paxton, and Powers Boothe, and a climactic revelation that ultimately leaves too little to the imagination. Shortcomings aside, I liked Frailty a great deal more than I expected to and, given time to marinate, found it to be increasingly gutsy and audacious.
Make no mistake: a compendium of uncomfortable images with a truly disturbing resolution, Frailty is never much more than a B-movie done well (every shocking twist is telegraphed, save Fenton's cleverly tipped destiny), yet it's the perfect antidote to the empty pretensions and overloaded piousness of most mainstream representations of popular spirituality. Though I'm reluctant to take the comparison too far, the film is as grotesque as a Flannery O'Connor and as base as a William Faulkner. The biggest and best surprise of the year, Frailty treads the delicate line dividing exploitation and cheese (crossing over into both on occasion) before finally gelling into something as hopeful and existentially terrifying as a call to action by a malevolent deity. Originally published: April 12, 2002.
by Bill Chambers Frailty arrives on DVD in one of Lions Gate's finest unofficial SEs yet. Besides a superb 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that gets the soft, greyish Bill Butler look just right and a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix that fills the room with abstract thunder during each of Dad's "visions," the disc features three good commentary tracks and more. Sure to please his fans, the funny and forthcoming Paxton talks in his solo yakker about what it was like to shoot Frailty next door to Legally Blonde, deplores perfectionism, brings up Weird Science, and admits to certain fetishes: heartland crime, Robert Aldrich, etc. Producer David Kirschner, editor Arnold Glassman, and composer Brian Tyler join forces for the second commentary, taking pride in the film and their individual contributions; screenwriter Brent Hanley gets the third track to himself and reveals that much of the film is based on his own childhood--eek!
Also on board the DVD are two separate makings-of. "The Making of Frailty" (20 mins.) offers a breezy overview of the production that would satisfy the casual viewer in lieu of either commentary track. ("It was totally weird to me, I didn't get none of it," says child star Jeremy Sumpter--gotta love it when a guileless kid jams the PR machine.) The Sundance-produced "Anatomy of a Scene" (26 mins.) deconstructs the technique of the framing sequences starring McConaughey and Boothe, placing the most emphasis on their characters' ride in the patrol car, which was shot on a set using twirling lights and wind and rain machines orchestrated by Butler. Four deleted scenes with optional commentary from Paxton that reveal a deleted subplot in which Fenton studied the Bible hoping to find something therein to use against his father, join a photo gallery, storyboards by gothic artist David Ivey for a trio of segments, and Frailty's theatrical trailer in rounding out the DVD. Originally published: August 29, 2002.