Saturday, July 20, 2013

Frailty

"Faith is a knowledge within the heart, beyond the reach of proof," said Kahlil Gibran. St. Thomas Aquinas said, ""To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible." In Frailty (2001) our narrator says near the start, "Sometimes, truth defies reason."

Most of the time, faith is seen as a virtue. To have faith in someone or something means you can trust and rely upon them. The nature of faith implies that devoutness will be rewarded in some way. In Frailty, directed by first-time director Bill Paxton, faith is not seen as righteous value but a twisted obedience to something evil.

Frailty contains two narrative tracks. In the present, Fenton Meiks (Matthew McConaughey) tells FBI Agent Doyle (Powers Boothe) that his brother Adam is the Hand of God serial killer who has been terrorizing Texas. As Fenton takes Doyle to where he says Adam has buried the bodies, he tells Doyle about his childhood where one night in 1979, his widowed father (Bill Paxton) told his sons that God had chosen the Meiks family to fight the demons walking the earth. However, the demons are disguised as humans, and when dad begins dragging people hog-tied back to the family shed to butcher with an ax, Fenton realizes his father has gone crazy while Adam devoutly believes they're now a family of superheroes.

Recently, there's been controversy surrounding the decision of Rolling Stone magazine to publish on its front cover a picture of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing. Some have argued that gave the suspected terrorist exactly what he wanted: attention and the rock-star treatment while being insensitive to the bombing victims. Others, including Slate magazine, have argued that while the image is shocking and exploitive, it also subverts our expectations of a terrorist. Not a "monster ... a brutish dolt with outward manifestations of evil. What we get instead, however, is the most alarming sight of all: a boy who looks like someone we might know," writes Mark Joseph Stern for Slate.

We can argue all day whether Rolling Stone was right or wrong in its judgment, but in Frailty, a similar approach, albeit in a fictional thriller setting, proves to be effectively unsettling. As played by Paxton, Mr. Meiks is not a fire-and-brimstone, raving caricature who condemns the unrighteous nor is he a sadistic monster who gets off on all the killing. He's presented as a genuine, loving, even sweet family man who believes to the core of his being in what he's doing, and yet what he does is horrific. To compound it, he encourages (or as Fenton says "brainwashes") his sons into doing likewise, and that legacy impacts the boys well into their adult years. Faith in one's actions not only can convince you to commit evil but to also get others to do likewise.

The violence in Frailty is brutal but not explicit. Much of it occurs just out-of-frame and is implied, so there's little splatter. The only blood I recall seeing is in the form of stains of clothing and hands. The murders themselves are hard to watch. Demon or not, the people Mr. Meiks has kidnapped and tied up stare up in wide-eyed terror, their mouths taped shut and their arms and legs, and all they can do is watch as the blade comes down. Another disturbing sequence occurs when the father locks Fenton in a dark cellar for days on end and only allows him one cup of water a day in an effort to get his son to find the faith. He loves his son, but his faith turns this loving father into a child abuser and a murderer.

That's the other element of the movie that keeps it from being just a freak show about a family of violent weirdos; they are first and foremost a family, and as they go about their gruesome deeds, we watch that bond disintegrate. The father's mission turns one son against hi and turns the other into a fanatic. The only time Dad refuses to act on a message from above is when he says he's been told that Fenton is demon, and rather than kill his boy, he tries to get him to see the light. Meanwhile, Adam gets slightly jealous Dad devotes time to the disobedient son. From a theological standpoint, it's almost a modern spin on the story of Abraham and Isaac with an allusion to the Prodigal Son.

Performances are good throughout, especially by Paxton. Paxton has played a lot of asshole characters (Hudson in Aliens, the car salesman in True Lies), but he convinces as a loving man with a terrible burden. McConaughey is appropriately mysterious; you know he's got a few secrets. Special props to the kids playing the young Fenton and Adam; they acquit themselves nicely.

For a first-time director, Paxton does a pretty good job. The narrative is balanced well between the two time periods, and it's simple enough to keep track of, and the plot contains a couple of twists and surprises along the way; let's just say our narrator is probably not 100 percent reliable. We witness some visions of angels and whatnot, but except for one instance, it's ambiguous enough that we're not sure if we're seeing genuine messages from God or hallucinations. What's chilling is the certainty with which the devout believe.

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