MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: Psychological Horror/ Stars: Bill Paxton, Matthew McConaughey, Powers Boothe, Matt O’Leary, Jeremy Sumpter, Luke Askew, Levi Kreis, Derk Cheetwood, Missy “Melissa” Crider, Alan Davidson, Cynthia Ettinger, Vincent Chase, Gwen McGee, Edmond Scott Ratliff, Rebecca Tilney/ Runtime: 99 minutes
I think it is safe to say that there is a very fine line that separates horror films that make you actually think and horror films that are just more of the same old, same old. Indeed one of these categories presents audiences with complicated and three-dimensional people finding themselves having to go through either nightmarish situations and/or horrific creatures that can’t be easily explained, the other category deals with a bunch of archetypes trying to simply survive a set of escalating skirmishes with a killer that takes advantage of their seemingly inherent stupidity in order to bump them off. The first category is one which is psychologically intriguing and offers no easy answers whilst the second category is one that embraces brutality and just overall wickedness. The first category is one which lets viewers connect with the protagonist and share in their fear with them. The other category just wants you to be an outsider looking in on these characters and cheer or boo whenever they get inevitability bumped off. Finally one category deals with the complexities of one’s senses of both morality and pure madness and the other is just satisfied with giving audiences as much blood, guts, and gore as its runtime will allow to be shown. Indeed if you haven’t figured it out yet dear reader, it is in the primary categories rather than the latter where we see iconic thespian Bill Paxton and writer Brent Hanley’s 2001 entry into the world of horror known simply as Frailty manage to showcase that it really truly is a more insightful, more frightening, and oddly more fulfilling entry in the iconic genre that is horror than the land of movie magic often likes to give movie lovers. Indeed although very little in this surreal and quite unique entry in the horror genre is certain, what is certain is the fact that, by drawing inspiration in equal measure from iconic dignitaries in the worlds of both classic literature and film such as Alfred Hitchcock, Edgar Allan Poe, and Stephen King, Paxton, Hanley, and the rest of the equally as talented cast and crew all have managed to deliver a truly unique, riveting, and memorable horror film that, despite the fact that it possesses a mood which is very restrained in every sense of the word, does not for a minute feel like a lot of the gimmicky horror films which audiences might be used to. Rather, it is instead one that offers audiences one of the most frighteningly intelligent scenarios presented in the world of horror cinema either before or since thus making this a true gem in every sense of the word.
The plot is as follows: the story of Frailty begins one dark night at the Headquarters for the FBI in Dallas, TX as we see an agent of some renown and seniority by the name of Wesley Doyle walk into the building on an urgent matter. A matter which takes the form, length, height, and weight of a mystery man who is sitting in his office with information vital to Doyle’s hunt for a notorious serial killer known simply as the God’s Hand Killer. Yet, despite his professional sense of cynicism, Doyle finds himself surprised when this mystery man, who we learn to be one Fenton Meiks, reveals straight up and with zero hesitation that the killer is his brother Adam. Curious as to how this young man can be so certain, Doyle gently yet firmly presses him for more information. What he gets however is more than just “further proof” that this young man’s brother is this notorious serial killer, but rather a story about a younger Adam and Fenton, their loving and devoted father, an ominous “mission from God”, and an axe with the inscription “Otis” scrawled upon it that by the time the story is done will not only completely change the lives of both Fenton and Doyle, but also make you, the viewer really think long and hard about just what exactly you know about the people you know or cross paths with and chill you completely to the bone whilst also making you ask more than just a few questions about God, and the power of faith among other things…..
Now it is worth noting that from behind the camera, this film is actually done phenomenally well. Indeed film helmer Paxton, who also co-stars in this, clearly had learned a wonderful amount about the world of directing during his time on various movie sets and brings to this film a directing touch that is equal parts restrained in showing us too much of the horror in the manner of John Carpenter on such films as both 1982’s The Thing and of course 1978’s Halloween whilst also at the same time being very grounded and quite realistic in how it approaches the terror much as in the manner that William Friedkin helmed things when he made The Exorcist back in 1973. Indeed the unique thing about this film is that for the vast majority of the movie’s runtime you are placed in the shoes of Powers Booth’s skeptical yet riveted Special Agent Doyle in that we too are not only unsure if McConaughey’s Fenton Meiks is telling us the straight and narrow as it were, but also if this young man’s dad and brother were just simply succumbing to a terrible case of homicidal psychosis or if they really were chosen directly by God and gifted with getting to see what they claimed to have been able to see and subsequently commanded to act on it. Yes, without going too much into spoilers, eventually the film does tip its hand in one direction more than the other and yes if you rewatch the film enough times you will eventually pick up on small things that show that is where this film is choosing to go, but I ultimately still appreciate just how hard Paxton and his crew behind the camera worked in making this film really feel like it could be both possibilities instead of just one thus leaving the audience a little bit of mystery to work out for themselves whilst also being engrossed in the riveting narrative that is being played out before their very eyes between the world weary Doyle and the stoic yet haunted and reserved Fenton.
Now the cast in this all manage to turn in engagingly solid work in this. Indeed as the younger Fenton and Adam, we get a pair of truly riveting performances from a pair of young men by the names of Matt O’Leary and Jeremy Sumpter. Indeed even though both of these boys were just at the beginning of their acting careers when they made this film they both manage to do truly wonderful work at giving us 2 brothers who are as tight-knit as could be, but who find their lives seriously upended by their father’s revelations to them and then slowly, but surely divided as both take up differing positions in regards to the validity of both the claims their father is making as well as of the actions he is engaging in “on behalf of the Lord”. As for our trinity of veteran cast members consisting of film helmer Bill Paxton, Matthew McConaughey, and Powers Boothe they also manage to integrate themselves quite well in this cinematic representation of a nightmare and do truly wonderful work as well. Indeed in the role of the boys’ father, who incidentally and quite eerily is never given a name, Paxton does a wonderful job of giving us a man who, although loving and fond of his 2 boys, is also within minutes of being introduced on screen is turned into a delightful enigma that we as movie goers will literally spend the rest of the film trying to decipher if he is either legit and the people he kills really are “the Lord’s will” or if he’s just straight up lost it and has started butchering random people with an axe. Some of that can also be said about McConaughey’s performance in this film as well. Indeed I know this was done when he was about to start doing a whole lot more in the way of rom-com’s, but he is just so riveting and haunting in this that he is the reason you literally find yourself drawn in to this story. Yet, while you may start out feeling one way for him, the film is brilliant in that is exactly what it wants to happen so that when things finally come to a head you are ingeniously left with some seriously conflicting emotions and thus leaving you even more on the edge of your seat waiting to see how it all plays out. Finally, in the role of our stoic FBI Special Agent Wesley Doyle, we get wonderful work from Powers Boothe who is admittedly the perfect person for us in the audience to follow down this particular rabbit hole of madness, but who also has a secret or two of his own as well that by film’s end will take everything you think you know or feel about this particular character and throw it for a curve thus giving the film the chance to provide you with a resolution to his arc that is, depending on whom you ask, either deeply karmic or oddly satisfying in a manner of speaking.
All in all as I said at the beginning of this review there are a pair of distinct types of horror films that exist out there for movie lover all over to cherish and enjoy, but boy am I glad that this one managed to make it into the first category. Indeed I have had the pleasure of seeing quite a few horror films on both sides of the aisle, but I can honestly say that I have not seen one quite like this. A slow burn in every sense of the word, Frailty might not seem like much going in that very first time, but trust me when I say that this film is still most assuredly a rousing triumph thanks not only to truly talented work on both sides of the camera, but also to a narrative that you will want to rewatch the moment it is done in order to see if maybe you can see the moment where everything stopped going from Point A to Point B and decided to take a wild detour all the way to Polka Dot Spotted Point W though I can all but guarantee you won’t spot it. Be that as it may be, Frailty is a true gem and one that every lover of either intellectual horror or just horror films in general owes it to themselves to find and sit down at least once. After all you never know: it may or may not just be God’s will that you are meant to do so…..On a scale of 1-5 I give Frailty a solid 3.5 out of 5.