Film Review: Frailty (2002)

Frailty 1

With Powers Boothe squeezing his creepy visage into The Avengers and Matty McConaughey starring in William Friedkin’s bizarre upcoming hired-killer thriller Killer Joe, I thought it might be time to look back at one of my favorites – Bill Paxton’s directorial debut, Frailty. A low-budget horror flick released in April 2002, Frailty took a whole lot of people by surprise when it turned out to be surprisingly solid slices of southern gothic, male melodrama, and supernatural horror. Even popping up on some “Best of 2002” lists, Frailty is a film that has fallen too far off people’s radars (in my humble opinion); let’s talk about why it’s worth another look.

 

Cliché as it sounds, Frailty is a film best experienced with as little previous knowledge as possible. McConaughey stars as Fenton Meiks, a disturbed guy who shows up at the desk of Agent Wesley Doyle (Boothe), proclaiming to know the identity of an active serial murderer known as the God’s Hand Killer. From there, he spins a tale of his horrific Southern childhood, warped by parental violence and religious extremism. And his tale goes far darker than most. The film cuts back and forth between Meiks’ youth with his father (Bill Paxton) and brother, Adam (Jeremy Sumpter), and Agt. Doyle’s attempts to make heads or tails of Meiks’ suspect story. Both narratives are fueled by creepy performances and constantly boiling tensions.

What makes Frailty is its dedication to its southern atmosphere. I’m a lover of the Southern Gothic tradition – supernatural or otherwise – and this film is soaking in southern atmosphere. Paxton has an eye and ear for tone, and you can feel the sweat and the humidity, you can smell the freshly cut grass, and you can hear the church bells in the background. You also get that genuine sense of innocent kids at play, and their worlds turned upside down by violence, akin to Stephen King stories such as Stand By Me and IT. You feel for young Fenton and Adam, so it’s all the more terrifying when their father takes them down the rabbit hole of his dementia.

It helps to know going into Frailty that it’s not a straight-up slasher film, though the film does deliver some striking violence. Instead, it’s much more of a psychological horror story, with the defenselessness of children and the dangers of religious extremism the film’s key ways of terrifying the audience. Fortunately, the actors are up to the task – McConaughey pushes back against his rom-com image to deliver an ominous, offbeat performance, and Powers Boothe digs deep into his gravelly persona to come up with a perfectly grizzled, suspicious officer of the law. Both genuine Texans, they play these roles for all they’re worth. In the past setting, both Jeremy Sumpter and Matt O’Leary (as the young Fenton) manage the horrific changes they go through extremely impressively for young actors. And Paxton, as the unnamed “Daddy” Meiks – brings his usual special Paxton-ness to become a father figure who can both be scary and sympathetic. Extra kudos for the uses of sets, lighting design, and the score for helping create a film that’s all about that old-fashioned stormy suspense. All of these elements add up to a movie that does a hell of a job finding a place amongst a great literary and film tradition; if you haven’t soaked in its sweltering southern juices in awhile, I recommend sitting down with it again this summer.

 

Rating: 4/5 ★★★★☆ 

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About Josh_C

Josh has studied film at the Universities of Missouri and Florida, and he is currently studying horror film and popular culture in the Communication and Culture program at Indiana University. He has previously worked with the True/False Documentary Film Festival and the Ragtag Theatre in Columbia, Missouri, and he served as short-term production assistant on This Film Is Not Yet Rated. He is currently working on a dissertation on independent horror, horror film festivals, and horror fandom; feel free to contact him to discuss any of the above! He is also studying Dark Carnival Film Festival (www.darkcarnivalfilmfest.com).

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