Frailty (Bill Paxton, 2001)

Frailty is a film about the question of faith, the possibility that something greater exists, and that our own sense of morality may be wrong. A man shows up at FBI headquarters because he claims to know the identity of a serial killer who has killed six people. He starts his story at the very beginning, recounting when he lived at home with his brother and father in a small Texas town. Their mother died giving birth to the younger brother, but the family unit persists happily and humbly. One night though, the father wakes up his two sons to tell them he had a vision from God that revealed that they had a special purpose; to destroy the demons that lived among them. The older son, Fenton, doubts his father from the beginning, while Adam, believes every word his father tells him.

We never doubt the father believes what is happening however the film does not commit itself to revealing any absolutes. The film is disturbing to the core, because of the conviction of the performances and characters and the lack of commitment to the apparent messages from God. It captures an incredible amount of anxiety relating to the struggles between family members, especially as the older son’s doubt overpowers his life and transforms his perception of reality. His youth and love is what holds him back, he is unsure of what to do because he fears his father… not only because of his capacity for violence and apparently unstable nature, but because he fears losing him. He is old enough to have already formed a rather strong hold on reality, and concepts of right and wrong, but is still entirely dependent on his father… not only to care for him, but as a moral and loving support to hold together his life. His initial struggle is founded on a tiny crack in his father’s perfect image that only grows bigger as the narrative progresses.

The title of the film, Frailty, apparently refers to the actual production of the film… but I think it is extremely telling as to the themes and feelings exhibited by the characters. Perhaps it is because I think most of the evils and wrongs of the world are rooted in weakness or frailty, rather than unadulterated evil. The film forces me to re-evaluate this conception of the world on many levels, not only in my understanding of good and evil, but the very limits of acceptable frailty. I think a lot of atheists would argue that the faith some have for religion and the divine, is a demonstration of weakness or at least ignorance. Though I can’t say I believe in God, I’m not sure if this is accurate and I think it over-simplifies and undermines personal experience. In this sense, Paxton’s character is extremely fascinating, because though he is convinced his visions are real, he does question them, and is seen as “weak” in retrospect by another character… and not for the reasons you may think. The examination of his faith is thorough, and terrifying, as it is not blind and unquestioning… it is simply disturbing. I wonder how the film would feel if we saw it through his eyes? Would it be more or less disturbing? More or less interesting? It would certainly be more conventional and palatable, even if there were to be some twist that would suggest everything existed in his head. The question of what is pulling Paxton back and pushing him forward is also fascinating, even if it is meant to be madness, the sheer strength it has over his entire psyche and actions within our world is monumental. It is an exhibition on the fragility of our bodies and impulses, as well as how fragile the balance of our lives and existence happens to be.

The film’s success as a horror film lies in it’s restraint. So much of the horror and tension is built on waiting. The initial confession of being visited by angels is followed by an apparent return to normal life. The scene that follows is not long, but the lack of acknowledgment and resolution makes it almost unbearable. The film is filled with these periods of waiting between action, and even those moments of action are restrained and drawn out. It is a film that understands the value of suspense within the horror genre. The film does not rely on its violence to elicit fears, and very little is actually shown… somehow, this makes the presence of blood so much more disturbing. Even the costume and make-up design implies the struggle and apparent humanity of the victims, perhaps more so than the physical violence could have been.

The film has a much discussed twist that completely transforms the rest of the film. It is no surprise then that you will either love it or hate it… I am in the former camp. In one sense, I am just a sucker for films that force you to re-evaluate what has been told and seen. It is done with incredible confidence, and never really cheapens the suspense and ambiguity of the rest of the film. Personally, I think it complicates it even more, introducing last minute “supernatural” element that transforms our understanding of events. In many ways, I feel like the shift is very much like the revelation about Captain Hank Quinlan’s intuition at the end of Touch of Evil. As morally dubious and really, reprehensible as his actions are, he was always right… maybe these demons are real. Does the end justify the mean? Then again, the question of the reliability of the narrator versus the reliability of cinema puts into question not only the characters, but the medium itself.

The film’s final shot is one of my favourite in recent history, as it is strangely reminiscent of something Norman Rockwell would paint; pure Americana, pride in justice and hope for the future… and yet, this is why it’s so haunting. There is no satisfying resolution and whatever your opinion on the twist I think the film will linger on your mind and soul.

3 responses to “Frailty (Bill Paxton, 2001)

  1. He certainly does, and as a fan of his acting work I have to say I was entirely surprised that he would make a horror film. Of course, he is no stranger to the genre, but I suppose I tend to associate him more with his role in Big Love above all else. I think he would be a very welcome filmmaker in the horror canon, though I’d probably see anything he’d do at at this point.

  2. Pingback: Best Horror Films of the 2000s « House of Mirth and Movies

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s