in Shocktober

Frailty (2001)

Frailty is a peculiar film for a number of reasons. One being that it marks the first of only two feature directorial efforts by Bill Paxton. Another being that it doesn’t entirely fit nicely into your typical preconceived notions of a mid-budget horror-thriller. On one hand, it does have a somewhat ridiculous premise (I mean, how many movies have demons as a major plot point?) And yet, it treats it’s more biblical overtones with the utmost seriousness, and despite a few pulpier moments, it comes off as this kind of father-son morality tale.

Much like the TV series True Detective, this movies begins with Matthew McConaughey inside an FBI station recounting his regrettable past. Here, his character Fenton claims that his brother is the God’s Hand killer to FBI agent Doyle (Powers Boothe). Through flashback, we learn that him and his brother were brought up on the murderous ways of their dad (Bill Paxton himself), who claimed that he could see people who were actually demons (he bases this on whether they’ve done wicked things or not). The people that he has marked as demons he lures and murders before burying them in the rose garden behind their family home.

The younger Fenton, however, doesn’t believe that God has bestowed this second sight up his father in the way that his brother Adam has. So much of the film consists of their dad killing people, while Fenton constantly is trying to free himself from his father’s patronly grasp or to worn others of his dad’s wicked deeds. Fenton eventually succumbs to his dad’s wishes, or at least seems to before his dad kidnaps his final victim, and in the midst of it, Fenton stabs his dad in the chest with his signature murder weapon – an axe named Otis. I know that probably sounds like a spoiler, but there are actually several twists after we learn that this happened.

As I mentioned earlier, there is something really compelling about this premise. After all, what does a child do when the person they look up to most is doing inexcusably bad things? Especially when this authority figure claims to have the power of God behind him, and the child has come up in the Bible-pounding South where surely God’s will must be just. And yet Fenton here clearly has his own set of ideals about what is right and wrong, while his brother Adam can’t help but take his father’s ludicrous word at face value.

I do wonder what this movie would had been like if it leaned just a little bit harder into the morality aspect of this story, since I think it is the most interesting thing about it. But even as it is, it’s a pretty impressive effort for a first time director, and Paxton (the director) does a good job of never judging anyone too harshly, even though pretty much everyone in this film eventually ends up being revealed to be a bad person. And because the film sets up its own set of moral questions, but never quite gives an answer to any of them, it has a bit more of a lingering quality than your typical murder mystery.

As I mentioned, this movie does have some twists at the end. Which I was expecting, considering most of the first 2/3’s of the film play out in a pretty straight-forward manner, and you just expect this type of story to have a big twist at the end. I can’t say the one that happens is totally unexpected, and I’m not sure how I feel about the supernatural element that plays a part in the film’s finale. But maybe I shouldn’t question it, since after all, it was God’s will for the movie to end up that way.

(Just kidding, God is dead. But demons are real.)

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