Meant to review this in memoriam for Bill Paxton earlier this year, but with Powers Boothe passing as well, I had no choice but to get around to it. Both are great in this underrated horror film from arguably the worst period for the genre in film history.
I read that Frailty’s narrative represents “an abuse of cinematic power” and, putting aside the puritanical aftertaste of that statement, how is this a criticism exactly? The American horror film landscape circa 2001 was infested with irony from head to toe, a casualty of the Scream generation that has since then only lacquered itself in respectability with the advent of hipster irony. But Bill Paxton’s directorial debut Frailty is deadly serious. Making a film about a father telling his kids – with both the slithering charisma of a snake-oil salesman and the slippery morality of a totem to middle-Americana – that God has commanded them to murder demons disguised as honest citizens, Paxton and screenwriter Brent Hanley were practically paving themselves a path to easy, self-congratulatory criticism of middle America. But they never thumb their noses at their audience in Frailty, a gravely humble rumination on the sins of the father dressed up as a low-slung Southern campfire tale that evokes the haunting vacancies of life and the sometimes-clawing need to believe in moral purpose with zealous conviction (pardon the pun). At any cost.
Frailty is also nearly the most cunning dissection of the inflection point between rustic American commitment and perverse obsession that Stephen King forgot to write. Plus, it’s fiendishly clever and cinematically inspired in a way only a precious few King adaptations could hope to be. King always failed to navigate his inopportune relationship to rural and small-town culture. He wanted to be deeply steeped in the rhythms of small-town life while also quietly mocking the fraudulences and frailties of that culture, but he was never astute enough to pull off that particular devil’s bargain. The films adapted from his works also straddle a line – and fall in the crack – between over-stated literary moralizing and good old-fashioned semi-incompetency. In other words, not only do they over-speak and explicate themselves into the ground, but they aren’t wordsmiths enough to neutralize the pain of their relentless monologues in the first place. Their most horrific feature is their gross misconstruing of the “show, not tell” idiom of cinema, and it is telling that the two best King adaptations – The Shining and Carrie – are auteur pieces divorced from King’s concerns. In fact, the former – which King famously abhors – was purposefully manhandled into an entirely different shape by Stanley Kubrick.
Frailty isn’t really an auteur’s film. It’s prose, not poetry. But it displays the self-conscious, assured hand and perceptive eye of someone – Bill Paxton – who could have navigated a second career behind the camera. He did make a second film, the negligible The Greatest Game Ever Played, so one can’t lump him in with the great missed-opportunities who only directed one film – Charles Laughton, most obviously – nor would Frailty necessarily qualify anyway. Unlike Stephen King’s weird amalgam of A-picture aspirations and B-picture form – which is a fancy way of saying he prefers to live up his own ass – Frailty never aims for the great eccentricities of auteurism, which is largely to its benefit.
But Laughton is an appropriate forebear for Frailty, even if this film hardly recaptures the lighting in a bottle of The Night of the Hunter. Paxton, reared in Texas, is drawn to the same concerns as Laughton: the molasses-drawl that uncertainly tips between patriarchal gentility and iron-fist domination, the debt of the present to the past in Southern culture, the always nebulous and often nefarious intercourse between the religious self and religious society, the temporal process of identity formation, the sense of place in Southern culture, and – perhaps most importantly – the expressionistic malformation of the world where the lyrical, the cosmic, and the terrifying are all irrevocably intertwined in a devil’s knot.
Directing himself, Paxton delves deep into his character’s paradoxes. Deeply caring yet viciously un-permissive of alternate paths, he is lost in the throes of his firmly committed belief system. The portrayal of Paxton’s murderous Dad Meiks – fully-drawn yet still opaque, vague, generalizable – allows the film to not only register the character’s personal complications but to displace the ethical questions away from the individual man and onto the more important issue of the religious belief system and American value structures writ large. For his children – Adam (Jeremy Sumpter) and Fenton (Matthew O’Leary) – the father’s belief system rouses relatively open complicity, in Adam’s case, and a significantly more unsettled conflagration of emotions in Fenton’s And, for the audience – who is always most important – religion becomes much more than a spectator sport as the film invites us into wicked actions and savage beliefs with a cocktail of terror and empathy that sits with you.
There are certain specious ideas in the screenplay that hinder the film overall, namely the eventual, trivial purpose of the framing narrative where one child (now grown and tanned into Matthew McConaughey) explains his father’s actions to a detective played by Powers Boothe. But the narration by McConaughey – who twists his honey-infused Southern accent into a haunted molasses trickle, like verbal passion has been stripped out of him – mostly venerates the wraparound. That, and Paxton’s visual craft in the flashbacks, utilizing superimpositions and dissolves to create a quasi-impressionistic flow of moments that echo the looseness of the child’s perspective on what happened, the dreamlike nightmare of a now-adult’s past memories. It all evinces that the grown-child is discharging a tenuous echo of the past rather than a lived-in depiction of it.
But the flashback structure of the film has less to say about the frailty of memory than it thinks it does (an obvious missed opportunity, considering the bifurcated time-structure of the film) and thus seems to exist in the film only as an affectation, a casualty of modern cinema’s bizarre obsession over post-scripts, preludes, interludes, frame-narratives, and other structural complications. This refusal to tell a linear story, I suppose, conjures a simulacrum of depth to people who assume non-linearity innately implies nuance or radical storytelling. The value of non-linearity is obvious for legitimately modernistic films that actually wish to play in the cracks of memory and perception, works that actually distort linearity beyond the point where the film can fall back on it.
Contrarily, films like Frailty settle into a kind of low-commitment semi-non-linearity: a frame structure wrapped around a mostly linear story, sowing the seeds of a greater purpose for the frame-story but never bearing fruit. The more the film persuades us that some particularly compelling argument about memory or perception is on the menu, the worse its eventual fall from grace and into the realm of potboiler feels. I don’t want to spoil it, but let’s just say that Frailty bears witness to a larger urge to maneuver around audiences that has distorted cinematic honesty for the past twenty years or so. It assumes that tricking us is tantamount to genuinely wracking our brains. And the film ultimately succumbing to a dime-a-dozen unreliable narrator conclusion sucks the air all out of it, to say the least.
But, for the long-haul, Frailty is an inspired movie about the horror of the soul, with nastiness and melancholy lingering around the edges of the frame. It’s a ripple in time, really, a work of modern concerns and classical style, its effectiveness revealing that that the way stories used to be told can still speak to the modern world. And, perhaps, intimating that this is only because the issues that need speaking to haven’t changed as much as we think. Frailty doesn’t feel like divine intervention in the incredibly stifled horror landscape of 2001, but it has more than a little of the devil in it even sixteen years later.