Sometimes Truth Defies Reason: Frailty (2001)

Whenever I take upon a viewing marathon, particularly one that involves me watching a ton of films of a specific genre I attempt to do a bit of research and find some examples of criminally underrated films that for a variety of reasons were overlooked and written off, yet prove to be the highlights of that particular year in filmmaking and even stand on their own against the giants of the genre.  While 2001's Frailty is not a perfect film, nor could it compete with the likes of The Exorcist or its contemporary masterpieces in the same ambiance and from the same year, particularly Mulholland Drive, it does manage to allow the important influence of these respective works wash over the narrative and make it become a visually engaging work with a narrative that could only work with the right levels of earnest dedication from all those involved.  Flowing in a simulacra of saturated filmic space, created by the mesmerizing cinematography of Bill Butler, Frailty manages to possess precisely this degree of direction and certainty, only benefitted by the always rewarding, if not initially realized, acting of Matthew McConaughey.  The fact that this is the feature length directorial debut of Bill Paxton, perhaps better known for his role on Big Love, makes the discovery of something like Frailty that much more rewarding.  Essentially, there is no quantifiable reason as to why a person would like Frailty on paper, nor is there an explanation as to how people would have sought it ought upon release, because it would appears to be a derivative and contrived piece of filmmaking with little to offer to the genre.  Derivative it is not, perfectly seasoned with a blend of horror classics and an understanding of a changing landscape in narrative filmmaking, Frailty manages to step up and compete with the other great puzzle films emerging around the time, such as Memento, The Machinist and in small ways the masterwork Zodiac.  To have been the person who rediscovered this film must have really been quite the revelation, not because it is has now become a much adored contemporary classic, but because it clearly appears to be remerging in the most word of mouth way possible.  I certainly know it will receive a healthy dose of acknowledgement on my part, right beside a few of my contemporary overlooked horror films in Session 9 and the science-fiction survival nightmare that is The Cube.

Frailty begins at the FBI headquarters in Dallas, Texas wherein a man introducing himself as Fenton Meeks (Matthew McConaughey) explains to Agent Wesley Doyle (Powers Boothe) that he is rather certain about the whereabouts of the God's Hand Killer, suspecting it to be his mentally unstable brother, who has recently committed suicide.  Suspicious for obvious reasons, Agent Doyle demands that Fenton provide some substantial evidence to such bold acquisitions, leading to Fenton telling a rather lengthy back story about his childhood growing up with his brother Adam (Jeremy Sumpter) in a single parent household with their father, played by Bill Paxton.  Things, while tough financially, are relatively easy going until in the middle of the night their father claims to have seen a vision of angels explaining that it is the job of not only himself, but Fenton and Adam to become slayers of demons in the name of God.  Thinking that it is simply a wild delusion of grandeur, Fenton, and to a degree Adam, write off the entire incident and continue on with their daily lives, even going so far as to overlook their fathers repeated returning home with items related to the killing of demons, the most disturbing being the various weapons he purports to be key to the act of slaying.  Yet, even this does not truly cause the children to step back and critique the situation, but when the father does indeed bring home a woman, bound and kills her with an axe, claiming that her sins had resulted in her becoming demonic, both the children appear to be initially hesitant, particularly Fenton who immediately questions the behaviors of his father and their larger implications on society.  This questioning on the pat of Fenton, leads to a divide between himself and Adam who sides with their father and betrays Fenton's desire to run away.  This leads to Fenton being locked in a cellar until, as his father says he is able to see God, at which point he will be released.  Through eventual dehydration and becoming stir crazy, Fenton claims to have seen God and then begins joining in the killings, as though it were something forever engrained in his psyche.  These actions carry the narrative back into the present where Agent Doyle and Fenton arrive at the alleged place of the burials.  It is at this point, where it becomes convoluted as to whether the narrative told was indeed through the yes of Fenton, or through those of Adam, perhaps even existing as a bizarre and troubling version of both.

Frailty could be interpreted as many different narratives, all having to pull from a decidedly complex narrative, that masks itself in a deceptively obvious form of linearity.  One could certainly make a case for it being a narrative of split-personality disorder, wherein one character is, in fact, extending his former reflections into multiple characters to help rationalize the terrible actions he committed, a reading that is further suggested by the general synthetic look of the film, one where glossy shine makes each action seem impossibly fabricated.  Another could simply be a study of the nature of evil and whether or not ridding the world of such entities should be deemed murder, the Texas setting for this reading making the narrative that much more complex.  I, however, am rather convinced that it is actually a metaphor, albeit obvious at times, about a troubling past with child abuse that was exacted upon children by a father figure.  Indeed, the narrative suggests that the family is void of a maternal figure, but the ways in which food magically appears in scenes and domestic chores happen to always be complete, would suggest that the memories spouted by Fenton are missing an element purposefully, perhaps an abused wife so minimized at the hands of an angry father that she has become literally non-existant in the narrative.  I know that the film suggest she has passed away, but considering its willingness to alter and shift factual understanding at a moments notice make such assumptions quite tenuous.  The reading of it as such a film is reinforced by particular images of Fenton possessing bleeding hands from working all day digging an impossibly large ditch.  Sure these could be callouses, but considering the father's reaction and awkward willingness to help heal the damage it could equally be read as one such act of abuse.  The fact that Denton is also depicted falling asleep during class, reflect his worry of the visions of God trouble facing his family, but again, it also could indicate an individual so emotionally distraught in the space of his home that he can no longer rest without severe anxiety and distress.  Add these images and subtle narratives to the notion that Adam and Fenton have considerably altering views on the nature of their father's goodness, and such a narrative begins to become rather blatant.  Indeed, should nothing else sound plausible, turning ones attention to the nailing the hatch shut on the shed scene, pretty much makes it a fact.

Key Scene:  The vision of the first weapon sequence is rather basic trick cinematography and special effects, but it occurs with such a degree of realized execution as to completely change the pace of the film, and is only one time when which this occurs in the stellar film.

This DVD and bluray is cheap, I would recommend the latter as it is a decidedly cinematic film and well worth a blind buy.

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