“Frailty” is a thriller made post-”The Usual Suspects” and “Sixth Sense”, so by that criteria alone it must have a twist ending. The problem with this is that most movies just don’t take the time to think out their twist so that all the pieces are in place before the twist itself is revealed at film’s end. Instead you get movies that have no buildup to the twist, and when the twist is finally revealed it comes out of left field. The filmmaker says, “Tada, here’s the twist!” and we the audience screams back, “Am I suppose to buy that? Give me a break!” (Actually, the film’s credit listing on IMDB.com ruins the film’s twist, so I have taken the liberty of changing/erasing all information that would spoil the surprise.)
“Frailty” has an excellent twist ending (even though it comes out of left field), but besides that it is such an understated film that I’m surprised it entertained me so thoroughly from beginning to end. The movie is about a serial killer who goes by the name of God’s Hand (he considers himself the hand of God), whose identity is about to be exposed as the film opens. When Fenton (Matthew McConaughey) arrives in the office of FBI agent Doyle (Powers Boothe), the man in charge of the God’s Hand investigation, he brings with him an amazing story about his father, the original God’s Hand killer, and how his younger brother Adam has since continued on dad’s work.
The film then flashes back to reveal how Fenton and Adam’s father (played by director Bill Paxton) one day informs the boys that he’s received a vision from God. It seems Dad has been appointed the savior of mankind and is given the task of exterminating “demons” that have invaded the human world. Imbued with powers beyond mortal men (he can touch and “see” the evils of his victims) and holy weapons (like an old ax, a greasy pair of gloves, and a plain steel rod that he uses to bash his victims over the head), Dad enlists the boys in his crusade. Before the bodies even begin falling, the clear-headed Fenton is already starting to doubt Dad’s mental state, but when people start dying for real, Fenton must battle his father for the heart and soul of his impressionable younger brother Adam.
The film opens in the present and flashes back to 1979, with newcomer Matt O’Leary playing the young Fenton. We see the film through Fenton’s eyes as he narrates for Boothe’s Doyle; through it all, director Bill Paxton keeps a firm hand on the preceding, never allowing himself to go beyond the means of his characters. There is nothing fancy about Dad’s stalk and kill scenes — he abducts them, brings them home, and smashes them with an ax as the boys watch in horror. With the exception of one scene where Dad envisions an angel with a fiery sword delivering a list of names of people to be killed, the film for the most part keeps a steady footing in reality and remains mostly plausible.
Brent Hanley’s screenplay is clever and Bill Paxton’s Dad is such a normal, blue-collar worker that it makes him all the scarier. Dad is a hard working mechanic that loves his two boys dearly and would do anything for them. He never raises his voice to them, never punishes them without reason, and even after God has supposedly given him this new mission, Dad remains loving and patient with them. And you have to keep reminding yourself that this guy thinks he can see demons.
If there is one misstep (and I’m not entirely sure that it is a misstep) in the film it has to be the film’s inability to decide if Dad’s mission from God was all in his mind, or if he was, in fact, given some special powers by a divine force. The film’s ending sequence (about 5 minutes or so) really blurs this line, and although the film never makes itself clear, I didn’t particularly mind one bit (and in fact found it quite fascinating). In that sense, the ambiguity at the end seems oddly appropriate for this strange, little movie.
Bill Paxton (director) / Brent Hanley (screenplay)
CAST: Bill Paxton …. Dad
Matthew McConaughey …. Fenton
Powers Boothe …. Agent Wesley Doyle
Matthew O’Leary …. Young Fenton
Jeremy Sumpter …. Young Adam