In the opening scene of FRAILTY, a man calls his brother and tells him that the world is full of demons. He then takes a gun and blows his brains out. Like the film itself, this scene is telling the truth and lying at that same time. The intricate plotting of this disturbing Southern gothic reveals everything and yet, using the audiences preconceived notions, makes each fact a surprise and each fiction a shock.
The story is told in flashback by Fenton Mieks, a mysterious stranger played with effectively eerie calm by Matthew McConaughey. On a stormy Texas night, he shows up at the FBI office of Wesley Doyle, a reassuringly stalwart Powers Booth, to reveal the identity of the so-called Hand of God serial killer. The killer, he claims, is his brother, the man who committed suicide in the previous scene, and en route to a rose garden, where the evidence to back his story up will be found, Mieks tells Doyle the story of a childhoods end over twenty years before. Fentons father, played by Bill Paxton, a widower and God-fearing pillar of the community, wakes his two boys up in the middle of the night to tell them that hes had a vision. An angel has appeared and commanded him to kill demons masquerading as human beings. He will be given three magical instruments and lists of names. Fentons younger brother (Jeremy Sumpter) is as fired up as his father, but Fenton (now played by Matthew O’ Leary) finds himself in the unenviable position of being the odd man out as his brother and father embrace what they see as a divine and secret mission, and that Fenton sees as madness. The realization sinks in for Fenton that no one will believe him if he tells his fathers secret, that his own brother is turning against him, and that his own life may be on the line if he continues to disbelieve.
The instruments, found by Dad in an old barn where a beam of sunlight leads him, are an axe, a hefty piece of pipe, and gloves. The list comes in due course, channeled by Dad onto a cheap dime store notepad. Though we are given brief glimpses of Mieks visions, most strikingly a car chassis that morphs into a gothic cathedral barely containing a sword-wielding angel, the tale is told from Fentons point of view. A point of view that serves as the films surrogate for us, the audience, as Dad Mieks brings victims home and forces his sons first to watch as he takes the axe to them, and then to help bury them in the municipal rose garden next to their home.
Paxton, who was directed to one of the best performances of his career by Sam Raimi in A SIMPLE PLAN, obviously picked up a few pointers the which he applied to excellent effect as FRAILTYs director. Shadows, fog, and low-key performances let the surprises and shocks leap out in sharp relief, provoking in the audience a visceral reaction. As the father, hes full of an earnest, almost wholesome goodness that belies the blood-spattering mission hes on.
Little by little, everything you assumed, all those seemingly solid facts that we take for granted, become as insubstantial as the smoke that they are going up in. By the end, you will have learned as much, if not more, about your world-view as you learn about these characters and the particular universe in which they live. FRAILTY, the title refers to the human condition, plays elegant mind games with its audience. The clues are there to be seen, but the paradigm they represent hide them in plain sight.