Here's one thing I've learned in this life so far: messing around with other people's religious beliefs is a bad idea. Even the slightest doubts raised about a person’s religious convictions can elicit strong emotions. When a movie like Frailty uses this subject as a convenient plot device for a supposedly shocking ending, I can’t help being offended by such disrespect.
The movie starts out with an enticing premise involving a serial killer motivated by what he thinks is a command from God. Fenton Meiks (Matthew McConaughey) seeks out FBI Agent Wesley Doyle (Powers Boothe) on a stormy night in Texas to inform him his brother Adam is behind the recent string of murders by a being who refers to himself as "God's Hand." Fenton proceeds to tell Agent Doyle about his peculiar past. As shown in flashback, Fenton's father (Twister’s Bill Paxton, both in front of and behind the camera for this film), a kind and well-meaning widower, claimed to have received messages from God and His angels. Their orders: Mr. Meiks and his family are to seek out demons that walk the earth in order to destroy them. Unfortunately, Dad’s list of demons included the names of regular people.
While young Adam (Jeremy Sumpter) willingly shouldered this responsibility, young Fenton (Matthew O'Leary) wondered if his father had gone mad. The two boys watched as their dad began bringing people, bound and gagged, to their home during the night. He would touch the victim’s skin to discover the truth about each one’s demon status --- which was apparent only to him. Then, terrified, he hacked the "demon" to death with an axe "sent to him from God." Young Adam claimed he could see what his father saw when uncovering a "demon," but all Fenton saw was murder.
Young Fenton's anxieties are the audience's anxieties, too. How can his father really feel he’s doing the right thing? Wandering freely to different locations and knocking certain people unconscious in order to chop them up later are disturbing actions, no matter the reasons. Still, the father makes a convincing case for himself. He truly believes he’s doing God's work. After touching his hand to one of the victims, he cries to his kids, "I can see his sins! He's a killer of little babies! Babies!" Even if true, would God approve this type of justice?
Had Frailty stopped with that question, it might have been an important movie about people who kill in the name of God --- a film offering insights into their motivations and about the pressure children face to live up to beliefs held by their parents. But Frailty isn't about such thoughtfulness; it's about creepy atmosphere and cheap shock endings. Thus, instead of just asking the questions, it also attempts to answer them with one crucial scene.
Would God justify vigilante murder? If the motivations this movie assigns to God seem offensive, then the message offered by the end of the movie should seem even more so -- that people who murder in the name of God really are heroic, provided they only kill bad people. And, oh yeah, that it’s OK to call such people "demons." What kind of crackpot message is that?
For viewers who defend the movie by claiming Paxton's character is not unlike people in real life who can't tell their delusions from reality, I refer you to a pivotal scene near the end of the movie. You'll know the one -- it's the only sequence featuring bright red blood against a white background. A confession makes it quite clear that the movie tries to give legitimacy to the visions we all thought could have been merely delusions.
A filmmaker might get away with presenting God as a good-willed George Burns in Oh, God!, or even as a playful Alanis Morissette in Dogma --- these are rather harmless and whimsical portrayals. But suggesting that He murders through the hands of characters like Mr. Meiks is highly objectionable to me. After sitting through Frailty, I think God should sue director Paxton for defamation of character.
(Released by Lions Gate Films and rated "R" for violence and some language.)
© Jeffrey Chen, April 14, 2002