Timely Horror

by Donato Totaro Volume 6, Issue 4 / April 2002 7 minutes (1682 words)

(This review contains SPOILERS and assumes the reader has seen the film. Be forewarned.) The use of the family and/or religion as a fountainhead of evil is a common theme in the horror film (Deathdream, The Exorcist, The Omen, God Told Me To, The Shining). However, one has to go back a few years to The Prophecy (1995) to find an American film that treated this theme with such renewed vigor as this unsettling horror film. Frailty begins with a middle-aged FBI Agent Wesley Doyle (Powers Boothe) incredulously listening to a young man, Fenton (Matthew McConaughey), tell him that the recent “Hand of God” serial killer is his younger brother, Adam. The bulk of the film is framed as Fenton’s flashback, which begins in 1979 and slowly travels up to the present. From Fenton’s 10 year-old (Matt O’leary) point of view (which we increasingly learn to read as possibly being unreliable), we learn of how he and his younger brother Adam’s (Jeremy Sumpter) idyllic childhood was shattered on the day their single parent mechanic-father (Bill Paxton, who also directs) dreams a vision from God handpicking him as his chosen demon slayer. Fenton listens skeptically, not unlike Agent Doyle in the present, while father recounts in piecemeal fashion how God’s visions have presented him with his three murder weapons and a list of names of people to be hunted down as ‘demons.’ The murder weapons are 1) a steel pipe to knock his victims unconscious 2) a pair of gloves which are used leading up to the capture of the demon until they are removed and the human touch reveals the demon’s true nature, and 3) an ax to finish the job. While Fenton remains unconvinced, the younger and more impressionable sibling, Adam, begins to believe the father’s twisted mission of faith: murdering for the sake of God.

Frailty’s treatment of this theme strikes a chord within the current political climate (The Afghan War, the escalating Middle East Crisis). In the back of my mind throughout this film was the ongoing “war on terrorism,” often represented in the media as a Christian vs. Muslim conflict. Although the film centers the religious fervor within the confines of a single family, the worldwide context of a decreasing split between state and religion, and the slew of religious wars that have been waged over the past several decades casts an eerie shadow of late twentieth century/early twenty-first century self-reflection over Frailty. While linking Frailty to the current world political climate is a symptomatic reading, the film is directly concerned with ‘parental terrorism,’ and the difficult decision a child must make between parental loyalty (whatever the cost) and individual identity and choice. Frailty asks the very pertinent question, at what point does a child challenge the ‘law of the father’?

Paxton pushes the religious and Biblical subtext in several directions. Paxton’s character echoes the Biblical Abraham, who was asked by God to sacrifice his son Isaac, and then saved from doing so by being allowed to substitute a goat. In this case Paxton ostensibly sacrifices his son Fenton when he locks him in an underground cellar until he ‘sees’ God. Somehow Fenton survives with only water given to him surreptitiously by Adam. The Biblical theme of fratricide in the story of Cain and Abel is echoed here in Adam and Fenton, with the elder sibling (Fenton) committing fratricide. On a subtler, visual level, is the extended scene where Fenton recounts the flashback to Agent Doyle while they are driving to the scene of the crime. Throughout this scene Doyle is driving the car and Fenton, seated in the back, is framed through a grid wire fence that separates the back and front seats. Staged in low key lighting and in large close-ups, the space feels very much like a Confession booth (also echoing the tense ‘revelation’ finale of Se7en, with Kevin Spacey seated in the back and detectives Freeman and Pitt in the front). Appropriately, the dialogue becomes much more ‘confessional’ and points the way to the final revelation where we learn that both men are hiding the truth: that Fenton (McConaughey) is actually the younger brother Adam, and that detective Doyle is a murderer who committed matricide.

From a purely generic standpoint, Frailty makes us rethink how we usually respond to the religious psychotic, and horror films which relate religious fanaticism with villainy. The horrors that we see in the film are doubly filtered: the viewpoint of the narrator who recounts the story, and the horror film convention of depicting murder and mayhem through the murder’s subjectivity. Paxton’s breakdown from ‘normal’ parent to religious psychotic is presented to the viewer through visually heightened moments. His first vision from God comes in a dream, and the subsequent ones are bathed in special light patterns (halo effects, streams of blinding light, etc.). In the most surreal one, the names of the people who are demons come to him in a bizarre vision he gets while working at work under a car. We assume that these are his delusional visions partly because we identify with the skeptical narrator-as-boy Adam disguised as Fenton, and because of the audience mental set established from previous horror film religious psychos. When Paxton performs his ‘witch hunts’ and touches his tied up victims to ‘see’ their true demon nature, the film augments the moment with abrasive sound cues and frantic, hand-held camera movements, but we see nothing that would justify his wrath, or that the ‘chosen’ few are anything but terrified victims of a fanatical witch-hunt.

But as the film progresses it begins to neutralize any difference between the scenes of murder and the fantastic and the everyday. And the returns to the present serve to remind us, once again, that the events we are seeing are being narrated and perhaps not from a reliable source. Indeed, once the flashbacks catch up to the present and the narrative begins to move linearly we are given conclusive evidence that not only Fenton, but Agent Doyle have been hiding something from each other, and the audience. Once they arrive at the rose garden where the murdered victims are buried, Fenton reveals the truth of the past. The man who all along has claimed to be the older brother Fenton is the younger sibling Adam. The very first flashback we saw at the beginning of the film, where a young man commits suicide by a gunshot to the head was false. Fenton did not commit suicide. We now see the true events of the past and that Adam murdered his brother Fenton, the ‘unbeliever’ turned serial killer.

In one of the film’s best shock moments, Agent Doyle notes that there are not enough graves to match the number of murders. But Adam replies that the ‘murder’ victims (Fenton’s victims) are not buried in the grave, but in the cellar below his house, and only the ‘demons’ are buried in the rose garden. In a series of brief flashbacks revisiting the earlier ‘touches’ we now “see” the chosen victims enacting various murders. Adam touches the detective and we glimpse, in slight overexposure, the detective murdering his mother. What is doubly interesting here is how this murder is the first one in which we see any blood and it is, by far, the most explicit of all the murders. All the previous murders seen in the flashbacks committed by the father were kept off-frame. The effect is to make us more sympathetic to the religious murderers, and add more credence to their status as demon slayers. But what does the film mean by demon? Director Paxton and writer Brent Hanley never miss a chance to instill irony and doubt. If indeed these people chosen by God are demons, what form do these demons take? When Adam’s touch reveals their supposedly true demonic identity we do not see anything supernatural but humans committing acts of violence. Their acts are unpleasant no doubt, but not those of supernatural beings. In one flashback a ‘demon’ is clearly coded as a sociopathic pedophile. Hence the ideological supposition here does not lead to a Christian view of hell and devils, but situates ‘evil’ within the natural world.

In the final scenes we learn that after Fenton murdered his father he became a serial killer in his own right, but it was Adam who continued the father’s religious ‘mission.’ Now a sheriff, Adam is able to plant evidence which incriminates his dead brother for the murder of Agent Doyle, clearing him of any links to his family’s horrific past. At the end, with everyone around him dead, Adam remains free, unpunished and, ironically, a man of the law. In the final shot Adam stands next to his pregnant partner outside the town jail as a detached camera cranes up and away. So by the end of the film it appears that the father was right all along, but can we ever be sure? Can’t those ‘revelatory’ visions we see near the end at the rose gardens that seem to vindicate the father’s mission be merely a product of Adam’s own continued delusional thinking? On the other hand, perhaps these, along with the wild visions the father had, even if seen from his subjectivity, were as real as any other event in the film? The reactions of Agent Doyle to being accused of murder by Adam would lead us to assume that he is a killer, but we can not be as certain with the previous victims. But neither can we discount that perhaps the people were not merely innocent victims. By the end we reach a point where the film raises such doubt about what is real and what is a construct of memory or deceptive self-interest that as we are left with the memory of the final shot we can not be certain of anything. Frailty leaves us in a deep metaphysical quagmire by giving a horrific twist to the age old philosophical problem of Reality and Appearance.


Donato Totaro has been the editor of the online film journal Offscreen since its inception in 1997. Totaro received his PhD in Film & Television from the University of Warwick (UK), is a part-time professor in Film Studies at Concordia University (Montreal, Canada) and a longstanding member of AQCC (Association québécoise des critiques de cinéma).

Volume 6, Issue 4 / April 2002 Film Reviews   horror  

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