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Movie Review: Frailty (2001) – Dad With An Ax In The Shed

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Frailty starts when a young man (Matthew McConaughey) walks into the offices of the FBI and starts telling Agent Doyle (Powers Boothe) about a recent rash of murders. That is the start of a long and twisted tale of the childhood of two young boys and their father (Bill Paxton).

Some of the story is told by the young man who introduces himself as Fenton Meiks. He claims to know the identity of a serial killer who calls himself “God’s Hand”. He says it is his brother Adam (Levi Kreis). When the agent asks him why he would think such a thing he starts telling the agent of his father and brother and his disturbing childhood.

The young Fenton (Matt O’Leary) grows up taking care of his kid brother Adam (Jeremy Sumpter) after the death of their mother. His father (Bill Paxton) is just another regular Joe working dad trying to take care of his two sons and he seems to be an honestly good father, hard working and normal. That is until one night when he wakes his two sons up saying he’s just had a visitation from an angel and he has been instructed that they are supposed to be demon killers, God’s Hand in retribution. This is very much an old testament God, one of fire and vengeance and flaming swords.

The angel delivers a list of demons to be slain and leads the father to the weapons they are supposed to use – an ax, a length of pipe and a pair of worker’s gloves. Young Fenton thinks his dad’s going nuts. Adam, on the other hand, takes to the new work with enthusiasm, supporting their father and telling his brother that he can see the demons when his father puts hands on them to reveal their sins.

Fenton resists with everything he has. He tells his father to get help, to stop killing people, but the dad just blithely keeps on reassuring him that they’re not really people at all, they are demons, and they are doing the Lord’s work. The more Fenton resists, the more dad tries to make him see the light.

Most of this is told from young Fenton’s perspective. The two young actors, and Matt O’Leary particularly, does a very good job of it. His defiance, the moral core, his fear and his loss of faith are pitch perfect and you really feel for him. He is caught in an impossible situation and he can’t get out. When he finally breaks down and goes to get the sheriff, dad kills the lawman and they bury him in the rose garden where they bury all their victims. All the while dad cries and tells Fenton it’s his fault he’s had to actually kill a human. Fenton spits at him that he’s killed plenty.

After that dad winds up locking the Fenton in a basement they’ve dug under their shed to have somewhere to take the demons when they are about to be slain. Dad keeps Fenton there until he’s weak from fatigue and starvation and that makes him see the light. When he comes out of the basement he’s completely with the plan.

Things are, however, not what they seem. When are they ever?

This is really low-key, up-close and personal horror, told in the tradition of Stephen King centering on the loss of innocence of the very young, Fenton is ten and Adam seven when all this starts. The long flashbacks show corruption at the very central core of these boys’ lives when their father goes completely bananas and drags them in to his delusion. Or so it might seem.

Bill Paxton plays the dad with the kind of finesse that actually keeps him from becoming and out-and-out monster. He believes in what he’s doing, all the way down to the particulars of using the ax the angel led him too. He is unwavering and he keeps saying “it’s for your own good” to Fenton when he punishes him for not believing.

The ending has a major twist that I don’t think I should reveal for those interested in watching this movie. It’s one of those things that either work on a viewer, or completely miss the mark. It’s mostly a question of how much you can go along with the narrative. I think it works well within the premise of the story, but for me personally, the flashback scenes are stronger.

This is Bill Paxton’s directorial debut and he does a good job of it, the tendency for actor-cum-directors to focus on the actors performances is always rewarding to watch, because invariably there is a certain depth of character portrayal that makes a movie like this, which is basically Southern Gothic, better than they would have been in the hands of someone focusing on the gore.

Frailty (2001) directed by Bill Paxton who also stars as Dad Meiks. Matthew McConaughey (Fenton/Adam Meiks), Powers Boothe (FBI Agent Wesley Doyle), Matt O’Leary (Young Fenton), Jeremy Sumpter (Young Adam), Luke Askew (Sheriff Smalls), Levi Kreis (Fenton Meiks), Alan Davidson (Brad White), Cynthia Ettinger (Cynthia Harbridge), Vincent Chase (Edward March) and Gwen McGee (Operator).

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