And it came to pass that a great cry arose from the people: “Let there be more films that address the messy but essential human subject of religious faith. Let filmmakers pretend no longer that their characters exist in a universe free from wranglings over the nature of God, and what His/Her/Its plans for us might be. And speak we not here of crap like The Omega Code, but genuine, honest-to-deity-identifier-of-your-choice drama about belief and non-belief. You know, more stuff like The Rapture.” And this cry was heard by writer Brent Hanley and director Bill Paxton, and from the sweat of their creative brows came a film called Frailty. And the people looked upon Frailty and saw that it was … mediocre.
Mainstream filmmakers are generally scared to death of dealing with God, and it’s no wonder. Nothing is more likely to inspire screams of protest than a pop culture creation with even the faintest whiff of irreverence. There’s an urge to embrace a film like Frailty simply for acknowledging the complicated question of faith without using either satire or sentimentality. But when it ultimately comes down to showy displays of genre gimmickry, you have to wonder: Was it really even worth the effort?
Frailty opens in the operatic gloom of a torrential Dallas rainstorm, with FBI Agent Wesley Doyle (Powers Boothe) arriving at work to find a strange story waiting for him. A man identifying himself as Fenton Meiks (Matthew McConaughey) sits in Doyle’s office claiming to have information about the identity of a still-on-the-loose serial killer known as “God’s Hand.” The killer is Fenton’s own brother Adam, the man says, affected by childhood experiences with their single father (Bill Paxton). Dad, it seems, believed that an angel of God had given him and his sons the task of finding demons hiding among us disguised as ordinary humans—and killing them. And while 12-year-old Fenton (Matt O’Leary) recoiled at what he saw as simple murder, 9-year-old Adam (Jeremy Sumpter) became an enthusiastic participant in Dad’s mission to cleanse the earth.
Most of Frailty unfolds in flashback, setting up the insular existence of the Meiks family and Fenton’s struggle with Dad’s utter conviction that he has been chosen to be a warrior against evil. Paxton’s lead performance, a portrait of earnest serenity, never turns Pa Meiks into a caricature of zealotry, which makes the character all the more disturbing. In his first outing as a director, Paxton also builds an effective sense of menace through simple, stark compositions drained of color. The film is hampered somewhat by ragged performances from the young actors—particularly O’Leary, who never quite sells the terror of watching his father turn into what he believes is a murderer—as well as by the stiff framing sequences.
But while Frailty proceeds at a languid pace, it’s never exactly boring. Something’s going to happen, you realize, and you sort of want to be there when it does. Then it does happen, and you regret your own faith in the film.
Frailty begins as a horror film that also explores a difficult psychological question: Is it possible that God continues speaking directly to people as He did in the Old Testament? But it doesn’t end that way. It eventually tells us exactly what to think, erasing all ambiguity from the battle between faith and madness it had been developing. Worse still, it does so in the service of a ridiculous “gotcha” climax that should be painfully obvious to anyone who has ever watched another movie before (particularly one specific movie with a “gotcha” climax and a very similar structure). A creepy portrait of disturbing religious conviction turns, loudly and luridly, into something out of Tales From the Crypt.
And thus it came to pass that Bill Paxton begat something content to be shocking when it could have been insightful. The people saw that once again, a film had chickened out when it had the chance to deal with faith in a secular world. They wailed and gnashed their teeth as religion was used in the service of hokum—artfully crafted hokum, but hokum nonetheless. And the true meaning of the Scripture was known through the limp effort that is Frailty: “Faith without works is dead.”