Film Reviews: Wednesday, April 11, 2002
Dark Angel

Frailty, thy name is Bill Paxton’s troubling directorial debut.

By Kristian Lin

Throughout world history, one thing that’s never gone out of style is idiots willing to kill people in God’s name. Frailty, a movie starring and directed by Bill Paxton, is about a killer with religious motives, which would be a touchy subject even if a bunch of similarly motivated idiots hadn’t brought down the World Trade Center last September. Even if the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington hadn’t taken place, the way this otherwise creditable thriller and domestic tragedy resolves itself would be problematic.

It begins with a man named Fenton Meiks (Matthew McConaughey) walking into FBI headquarters in Dallas and telling the agent in charge (Powers Boothe) that he knows the identity of the person behind a series of killings known as the “God’s Hand” murders. The film then flashes back to 1979 in a small Texas town, where the bulk of the story is set. The happy childhoods of young Fenton (Matt O’Leary) and his younger brother Adam (Jeremy Sumpter) are shattered forever when their beloved widowed dad (Paxton) suddenly wakes them one night and tells them about having a vision of an angel of God commanding him to kill “demons.” Soon afterward, the angel returns to him with a list of names and addresses. Dad quits his job to engage full-time in the pursuit of staking out people he has never met, kidnapping them off the street, and murdering them with an ax. All the while, he insists that his terrified victims are not people, but demons.

Paxton’s visual style is mostly low-key, which is a good counterbalance to a script full of rhetorical excesses that will gratify devotees of Southern Gothic fiction. When an old lady is stabbed to death while hanging out her washing, her blood of course spurts all over the clean white bed sheet that she has just hung up. Fenton narrates how Dad once disciplined him by forcing him to dig a large hole in their backyard: “It took me five days, but I dug until that hole was as deep and dark as my hatred for my dad’s God.” Oh yeah, we’re in the South all right.

By far the best thing in the movie is Paxton’s resolutely life-sized performance. This actor continues his well-documented tendency to succeed gloriously in low-budget films (One False Move, Traveller, A Simple Plan) while failing to register in high-profile Hollywood films (Apollo 13, Twister, Titanic). In this movie, he refuses to indulge in mannerisms that signal his character as “evil”: In the murder scenes, he seems to feel his victims’ fear even more than they do. He makes Dad all the more frightening because his decent, loving impulses co-exist with his homicidal delusions. The various parts of the family tragedy are all harrowingly real — the way Dad gently coerces or sternly forces his boys into helping him catch his victims and bury the bodies, the boys’ helplessness in the face of Dad’s consuming religious mania, the way their loyalty to him and each other make them unable to leave or resist him, the psychic damage that they suffer from witnessing the killings.

The movie does many things right, which makes the things it does wrong more irritating by comparison. The scenes in which Dad “sees” the sins of his victims are irredeemably cheesy. (The staging and Brian Tyler’s score in these moments could almost be a parody of penny-ante supernatural horror.) The law enforcement officials in the film have to be extremely dense to allow the killings to continue. Allowing us to see the angel that gives Dad his mission is a mistake; Paxton would’ve been better off keeping events on a realistic plane. The filmmakers (including screenwriter Brent Hanley) end up writing themselves into a corner. It’s clear from the start that Fenton’s not telling us something, and the movie puts itself in a position where nothing less than a brilliant idea will bring the story to a conclusion. Brilliant ideas are never in plentiful supply, so we may be inclined to forgive the film for not having one, but it chooses arguably the worst way out.

By making the victims somewhat deserving of their fate, the film winds up endorsing Dad’s actions, at least indirectly. The movie closely resembles another paranoid thriller about murderous zealots in our midst posing as upstanding moral citizens — Mark Pellington’s 1999 film Arlington Road. They both make the mistake of presenting the killers as having superhuman (or, in Frailty’s case, divine) powers to elude detection, and their failure to condemn the killers strongly enough undermines their cautionary aspects. Frailty’s final tableau looks an awful lot like the triumph of a Christian fundamentalist Charles Manson. Are we supposed to share the triumphant mood? I’m afraid I don’t know.

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