The Revisit – Frailty

The Revisit is a place for me to rewatch films I love but haven’t seen in years or films that didn’t click with me the first time. Through The Revisit, I reevaluate these movies and compare my original thoughts on them to how they feel in this more recent viewing.

Frailty (2000)
Written by Brent Hanley
Directed by Bill Paxton

frailty

It’s a rainy night in Dallas, Texas when FBI Agent Wesley Doyle (Powers Boothe) is called into the office to speak with Fenton Meiks (Matthew McConaughey), a strange man who claims to know secrets behind what authorities have dubbed “The God’s Hand Killer.” Mainly, he tells Doyle that his brother, Adam is the killer. The film becomes a series of flashbacks to Fenton and Adam’s childhood wherein their father (Bill Paxton) claims to have been visited by an angel that tells him which people are truly demons in disguise. He brings the two boys along with him as he hunts down and murders these false humans, but Adam grows increasingly fearful of his father’s actions. Their father begins to see Adam as a threat and takes drastic measures.

Frailty garnered a decent amount of attention for quite a few reasons. It was the feature film directorial debut of actor Bill Paxton. By this time Paxton was very well known for his collaborations with James Cameron, as well as his supporting role in Apollo 13 and starring role on in Twister. This was also on the tail end of Matthew McConaughey’s first time in the spotlight, before he sunk into the formulaic romantic comedy void for most of the 2000s. Also, the story of Frailty is structured so that the truth behind Papa Meiks’ visions of angels and demons is kept obscured.

I really like the concept and structure of Frailty. Anytime you have an unreliable narrator at the focal point of your script it can be very compelling. The writer has walked a very tight rope of revealing bits of truth but twisting them enough to fit the agenda of the storyteller. Frailty does walk a little too close to the edge of The Usual Suspects but differentiates itself enough by keeping the characters and plot very deep fried Texas. There is a quite a bit of Flannery O’Connor mixed in with Southern Noir.

When I first saw Frailty back in college I just never took to it. At the time, I don’t know if I had the cinematic vocabulary to articulate what about this film rubbed me the wrong way. Revisiting it 17 years later, I still didn’t find it to be a great movie, and I think I know why. The biggest issue with the film is its lack of exploring the religious themes it brings up. Papa Meiks’ transformation seemingly comes out of nowhere and, while I don’t need an origin story, it would have been nice for the film to have set up some sort of relationship between this character and the church. The argument could be made that because the story is from an unreliable narrator recalling events from his childhood his parent’s motivation are unknowable.

So, if the film is about the character of Fenton Meiks and the intellectual conflict between he and Agent Doyle as the story unfolds then I expect Fenton to be remarkably riveting. He is not. McConaughey hasn’t perfected the nihilistic tone of True Detective’s Rust Cohle at this point, so he comes off as too wooden. He plays up the nefarious qualities of Fenton way too obviously so that the twist in the third act is something the audience is sitting there waiting to happen already.

There is plenty of dripping atmosphere throughout, but the film cannot overcome the thinness of the script. If this were a short story I’d read in a horror anthology, it would be the perfect amount of information. For a feature film though, there is very little meat on the bones. It’s a decent effort from Paxton as a director, but nothing that impresses me all these years later.

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